With all eyes on the confirmation hearings for former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO) as Attorney General, another critical vacancy for drug policy reformers is receiving scant attention. The Bush transition team has had nothing to say about who is in line for the drug czar's position being vacated this weekend by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and, with few exceptions, the drug reform movement has been equally silent.
That hasn't stopped prohibitionist stalwarts, who hear the footsteps of reformers gaining on them, from attempting to influence the choice -- and the general direction of drug policy. According to the Washington Times, a coterie of Republican House drug warriors sent a letter to President-elect Bush urging him to "reenergize" the drug war and not to drop the drug czar's cabinet-level status.
"We believe that any downgrade of the drug czar position below Cabinet status at the outset of your administration would be a political misstep," said the letter. "Early on, President Clinton's misguided efforts to severely reduce the ONDCP staff was met with strong public and congressional condemnation and eventually reversed."
The letter's signers included powerful Republican Reps. John L. Mica of Florida, chairman of the House Government Reform criminal justice, drug policy and human resources subcommittee and co-chairman of the Speaker's Working Group for a Drug Free America; Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee; Cass Ballenger of North Carolina, vice chairman of the International Relations Western Hemisphere subcommittee; and Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, past chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
The congressional drug warriors called on Bush to choose a "nationally prominent figure" as drug czar, and according to the Washington Times, the man they have in mind is former Congressman Bill McCollum (R-FL), notorious as a drug policy hard-liner during his years in Congress. McCollum lost a close race for a Senate seat to Democrat Bill Nelson in November.
The Washington Post's political gossip columnist, Al Kamen, seconds the scuttlebutt on McCollum, but adds that another Floridian and inveterate drug warrior, James McDonough, is also on the short list. McDonough, formerly an assistant to McCaffrey in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is currently Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's drug czar.
In an odd twist, Kamen also mentions Republican Michigan Gov. John Engler as a possibility for the job, mainly because the Bush team has not yet found a cabinet post for him, not because Engler has any special interest in drug policy or the drug czar position.
And in a sadly unremarkable jeremiad, the New York Times' Abe Rosenthal urged Bush to "show what presidential compassion means for Americans" by appointing a new drug czar on inauguration day. And if Rosenthal had his druthers, the new drug czar would be... William Bennett, self-appointed moralist and former drug czar.
In a warning to the incoming president, Rosenthal makes clear that if Bush does not wage a sufficiently vigorous drug war, people like Rosenthal will accuse him of "indirectly strengthening the relatively small but overly influential clique of Americans who belittle and befoul the advances made in fighting illegal drugs."
Those people, with their "well-financed and skillful propaganda machine... set up and win innocuous-sounding state referendums, disguised simply as permitting the use of narcotics for sick folk," but what they really want is "a sly crawl to legalization," writes Rosenthal.
Those "pro-drug lobbyists," Rosenthal continues, wiping the froth from his lips, need "the disgust of society against them," but that has not happened "for shameful reasons" and because of a "politically correct and socially vile attitude has persuaded some normally sensible people to believe the war is being steadily lost."
Another drug warrior, former New Mexico Public Safety director Darren White, has also thrown his hat into the ring, at the behest of someone in the Bush transition team, he told the Albuquerque Tribune. White, who as Public Safety director also served as the state's drug czar, has as his apparent primary qualification the fact that he opposed Gov. Gary Johnson's drug reform efforts.
White resigned in 1999 saying that Johnson's pronouncements on drug policy were hurting police morale and credibility. He is also applying for DEA administrator.
And that brings us to Gov. Johnson. Gadfly columnist Arianna Huffington has used her bully pulpit to nominate Johnson for the post. Writing that "it's time to bring on a drug czar who can skip the cheery rhetoric, face the fact that the facts aren't good and turn the wheel before we head over the cliff," she urged Bush to give him serious consideration.
Johnson told Huffington, "the first thing I would do is institute truth-in-advertising rules at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, because a lot of what has been coming out of it is pure hogwash -- especially the claims of victory." But always the realistic politician, Johnson added, "It would be too bold a statement for Bush to choose me. I'm a little radioactive. But I definitely think that a bold choice is what is needed."
Huffington has been almost alone among drug reformers in lobbying for a progressive drug czar. Bill Piper, legislative analyst for The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, offered some reasons why. "We are really busy with the Ashcroft nomination," he said, "but more importantly, we're frozen out. They aren't going to listen to us."
Common Sense for Drug Policy is making noise anyway. In a common effort with the United Methodist Church, the National Public Health Association, and the National Black Police Association, the group has placed print ads listing job requirements for the new drug czar, but without putting forward a specific candidate. (Visit http://www.csdp.org/ads/wanted.htm to view the ad online.) According to the ad, the successful candidate will have experience in public health, the courage to speak out against drug war ideologues, the honesty to admit that some illegal drugs are not as dangerous as some legal ones, the willingness to impartially review scientific studies, and an understanding of market principles. The ad appeared in the National Review, the New Republic, the Weekly Standard, the Nation, Reason Magazine and The Progressive.