Meet the New Czar, Worse Than the Old Czar 5/4/01

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President Bush's quasi-nomination of John Walters as the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the "drug czar�) was an act of stealth politics. No press conferences, no fanfare, no White House garden ceremony marked his annunciation. Instead, anonymous sources fed the story to Dan Forbes and, the wire services picked it up, and more anonymous officials confirmed the story.

This subdued approach to the Walters nomination is entirely in keeping with the tactics of a president who talks reasonably about drug policy -- against racial profiling, against mandatory minimums, for more treatment -- but who then appoints arch-conservatives, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, to key drug policy positions. With John Walters, Bush has found a drug czar who will bravely take drug policy forward to the last century.

Mentored by man of virtue Bill Bennett, first at the Department of Education and then as Bennett's right-hand man during his tenure as drug czar, the 49-year-old Walters seems never to have met a mandatory minimum sentence he didn't like or a drug user he did. As head of the drug czar's office of supply reduction under Bennett and Bush the senior, Walters made frequent Capitol Hill appearances to cheerlead for ever more drug interdiction funds.

Upon leaving office, Walters became president of the New Citizenship Project, which promotes an increased role for religion in public life. He co-authored the book "Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs," which created the bogeyman of the youthful "superpredator" with Bennett and John J. DiIulio, who is currently running Bush's faith-based initiative campaign. Later, Walters moved to the Philanthropy Roundtable, an organization that steers potential donors to properly conservative charitable causes.

Once the Clinton administration took over, Walters emerged as an insistent critic of Clinton's drug policies, especially in the campaign season of 1996, when he surfaced as Sen. Bob Dole's spokesman on drug issues. In testimony given to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 1996, Walters held the Clinton administration responsible for the cyclical uptick in drug use that began in the last years of the Bush administration.

The reason for the increase in drug use in the 1990s was "a failure in federal policy," Walters testified, strangely accusing the Clintonites of "de facto legalization" for failing to stop all drugs from entering US borders. (The charge approaches the absolute zero of absurdity given the record numbers of Americans arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes under the Clinton administration.)

Not one to merely carp, Walters also presented the senators with a six-point anti-drug policy of his own device, one that may be viewed as a blueprint of a Walters czardom:

  • The president must use his "bully pulpit" to propagandize against drug use.
  • Get tough in Latin America. (In his testimony, Walters criticized Clinton for temporarily halting US aid for one of his favorite programs -- the Peruvian "fly and die" airplane shoot-down program. In oddly non-prescient words, Walters wrote, "This is an opportunity to save American lives by helping the Peruvians press their attack on traffickers.")
  • Increase US military involvement in the drug war. (Walters wrote "set more sensible budget priorities," but devoted his argument to complaints that the military was not getting enough money for drug interdiction.)
  • War on marijuana. ("Federal marijuana penalties need to be stiffened," Walters testified, "and federal eradication efforts need to be invigorated.")
  • Keep the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparities in place. (In his testimony, Walters railed against US Sentencing Commission efforts to reduce the crack penalties, saying such "irresponsible proposals from the Sentencing Commission should be blocked, and the Commission should be barred from proposing changes in criminal penalties where Congress has established mandatory minimum sentences.")
  • Favor confrontational and faith-based drug treatment programs. (Walters cited Phoenix House as the sort of "tough program" addicts need, and added that, "Religiously based programs should be eligible for funding, and addicts who seek publicly funded treatment should be required to enter rigorous programs and face real sanctions if they fail to complete them.")
Walters has also spoken out on other drug policy-related issues. He harshly criticized Gen. McCaffrey for insufficient efforts to snuff out the medical marijuana rebellion in California in 1996. In particular, he scoffed at McCaffrey's assertion that the administration would collect data to demonstrate the harms of medical marijuana. "One thing they want to do is watch the body count in California," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Why don't they prevent the body count in California?"

He was equally skeptical of drug courts. In a 1997 article on drug courts in Connecticut in the Christian Science Monitor, Walters said, "You can have change for the sake of novelty. Connecticut can do whatever it wants, but if you want to know what works here, it's tough enforcement, hard-headed adequately-funded treatment, and hard-headed adequately-funded prevention."

But he likes drug testing. He told the House of Representatives in March 1996 that "pre-employment testing ought to be able to be done everywhere, Congress, the Judiciary, the Executive Branch," and that federal employees should be subjected to "random testing."

To give Walters the benefit of the doubt, we note that all of his remarks above came from the dark ages of the mid-1990s. Much has occurred in drug policy since then, and perhaps Walters' views have evolved over the years. Not likely, if his March 2001 article in the conservative Weekly Standard, "Drug Wars: Just Say No... To Treatment Without Law Enforcement" is any indication.

In his article, a jeremiad against the "therapy-only lobby," Walters writes that "law enforcement and punishment would be natural partners of the treatment providers" if only people quit treating drug addiction as a disease. After all, he asserts, "coerced treatment works at least as well as voluntary treatment." He also notes approvingly that "if anything, the trend of anti-drinking and anti-smoking efforts today is to criminalize certain aspects of use and attack availability."

But all of this is just the warm-up for his main argument against some of the "great urban myths of our time." Those myths, writes Walters, are (1) we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs, (2) sentences are too long and harsh, and (3) the criminal justice system is unfairly punishing young black men.

Walters goes through some statistical legerdemain to argue his case and it is beyond the scope of this report to refute him in detail. It is sufficient here simply to note that Bush's nominee for drug czar is proudly harsh and retrograde in his views, willing not only to defend punitive policies but to make affirmative arguments for them.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Barry?

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Issue #184, 5/4/01 Editorial: The President's Daughter | HEA Coverage | Meet the New Czar, Worse Than the Old Czar | Consent Searches to Become Extinct? New Jersey and California Move to End Highway Searches Without Probable Cause | Bolivia Update: Coca Growers, Civil Society Bring Government to Table, Agreement Provides Breathing Room but Vast Differences Remain | Dutch to Introduce Drive-Through Coffee Shops, Take on UN Drug Control Program and Live With Ecstasy 184/doctorsplit Doctors Split on Prescribing Medical Marijuana, Survey Says | The Reformer's Calendar
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