A month after President George W. Bush came into power, he has yet to fill the post of drug czar, as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is commonly known. Last held by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who stepped down last month, the office is being headed on an interim basis by McCaffrey's assistant, Bob Weiner. There are also growing indications that Bush will not let the drug czar keep a cabinet seat, a practice followed by President Clinton but not by Presidents Reagan and Bush pére.
What this means in terms of Bush's approach to drug policy remains unclear. In comments to CNN on the eve of his inauguration (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/170.html#bushondrugs), Bush subtly hinted at a different direction than the law enforcement-heavy approach favored by the Clinton administration and conservative Republicans, including his own new Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who said recently that he wanted to "reinvigorate the drug war."
"I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long minimum sentences for the first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease," he told CNN's Candy Crowley, "and I'm willing to look at that."
And in his meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox two weeks ago, Bush explicitly accepted that US demand for drugs drove the Mexican drug trade. There he echoed his new Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who has questioned further use of the military in prosecuting the drug war and said the problem was "overwhelmingly a demand problem." Along with his embrace of "faith-based initiatives," such comments suggest that Bush may be about to unveil a kindler, gentler drug war refocused on treatment and demand reduction.
But that isn't why the drug czar will likely be demoted. Despite compassionate words about treatment and rehabilitation, Bush's new budget outline, released on Wednesday, calls for an increase of $1.5 billion in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spending.
By law, the heads of 14 federal agencies get Cabinet seats; the rest are at the president's behest. Clinton was especially prolific, adding 11 other slots, but Bush is under no obligation to retain the Clinton Cabinet structure, and his aides told the Times that a slimmed-down Cabinet would be more effective. He has granted Cabinet status to only three other agency heads, EPA Director Christine Whitman, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels.
"What he is more looking at is what creates a more effective operation, a more effective Cabinet," said a Bush aide. "If you get the Cabinet too large, it becomes a bulky mechanism."
The official White House word is that the decision on the drug czar's status is "pending," but: "You can draw some conclusions," a Bush aide told the newspaper. "It's been 30 days and he hasn't added [the drug czar] in."
The same modest but chatty Bush aide told the Times the White House expects to take flak from its right flank and is preemptively preparing a message that the demotion "doesn't signal any change in his perception as to whether he thinks this is an important area."
In fact, the White House is already hearing grumblings from conservative drug warriors worried that Bush may lack zeal in prosecuting the drug war. Earlier this year, several leading Republican lawmakers wrote an open letter to Bush calling for a renewed commitment to current policies and warning that "any downgrade of the drug czar position below Cabinet status at the outset of your administration would be a political misstep." They added, "Downgrading the Drug Czar position would send a confusing message to our nation's young people and a troubling message to our international allies in our fight against drugs" (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/169.html#newdrugczar).
And former drug czar Bill Bennett weighed in last week with a slashing op-ed in the Washington Post, where he warned that reducing criminal penalties would make it more difficult to get drug users into treatment.
"People who are forced to enter treatment under legal sanctions are more likely to complete treatment programs and thus more likely to get well," wrote Bennett. "If we treat drug use as a purely medical problem, and treatment as something that can be only voluntarily taken up, fewer people will enter treatment -- and those who enter treatment are less likely to get well."
Conservatives are also lobbying Bush to name a new drug czar quickly and reinvigorate the drug war. Bennett, in an interview with the Knight Ridder News Service, said: "It's time to use the bully pulpit again and reengage public debate on these issues."
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported grumbling among "most officials" it surveyed that no drug czar had been nominated. William Maginnis, vice president of the social conservative Family Research Council, has also weighed in recently. "I've heard a lot about tax cuts (from the administration), but not about drug policy. I'm concerned because every day that's lost will have an impact on a few more kids."
Maginnis, who wants the job himself, has ginned up a "grassroots" effort to push his candidacy and succeeded in gaining the support of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). A Hastert aide confirmed last week to Knight Ridder that Hastert had endorsed Maginnis and put in a good word for him with the White House.
According to Knight Ridder, Capitol Hill Republicans say former Florida Congressman Bill McCollum, an ardent drug warrior during his tenure on the Hill, and current Florida drug czar James McDonough are in the running.
But according to the insider newsletter Washington Weekly, McCollum, whom it called "the preferred candidate of many of the firmest supporters of the war against drugs," has told the White House that he would be interested only if the position remained at Cabinet level.
In the eyes of some drug reformers, McDonough wouldn't be much better.
"I expect he would be very much a McCaffrey type and we'd see a zero tolerance to drugs," Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org) told the Weekly. "McDonough, who's been campaigning for the drug-czar job and wants it most, might even be more conservative than McCaffrey. So, I don't think he'd make a very effective drug czar," Zeese added.
Two candidates with outside shots are Boise, Idaho, Mayor H. Brent Coles, a Republican moderate who heads the US Conference of Mayors, and Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona, District Attorney Rick Romley. Romley has won praise from some quarters of the drug reform movement for his pioneering efforts to divert first-time non-violent drug users from criminal trial, if they undergo court-supervised treatment. But he has also made a name for himself as a rabid prosecutor of methamphetamine offenses and as point man in efforts to defeat groundbreaking drug reform initiatives in Arizona in 1996 and 1998. Ironically, Romley is being criticized from the right for his role in those battles -- because he failed to win them.
According to reports in the Arizona Republic, Romley interviewed for the job in Washington last week, and the newspaper said a decision would be made shortly.