Bush’s new drug czar?

John Walters, a hard-line drug warrior, is the leading candidate to replace Barry McCaffrey. Advocates say he's a throwback to the bad old days of Bill Bennett.

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John Walters, a hard-liner who was former drug czar William Bennett’s deputy during the first Bush administration, has emerged as the leading candidate to become director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, according to a knowledgeable drug policy source.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that three reliable sources, including one in the White House, told him on Thursday that Walters was likely to be chosen to head the drug office. The White House declined to comment on the report.

Walters is a self-proclaimed hawk on drug policy matters who has been strongly critical of the Clinton administration’s execution of the drug war. At the ONDCP, he was responsible for developing enforcement policy and coordinating attempts to reduce the supply of banned drugs. The Bennett-Walters drug office was characterized by widespread use of the bully pulpit to issue harsh moral condemnations of users of illegal drugs, little distinction between marijuana and drugs like heroin and cocaine and an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation.

Walters and Bennett also made a decision to stop the longtime practice of representing drug use as a health matter, arguing that doing so made drug users too sympathetic. In his 1996 book on the drug wars, “Up in Smoke,” Dan Baum quotes Walters as saying, “The health people say ‘no stigma,’ and I’m for stigma.” Baum writes that Walters “took the position that marijuana, cocaine and heroin ‘enslave people’ and ‘prevent them from being free citizens’ in a way that tobacco and alcohol do not.”

Walters’ appointment would end a three-month period during which the ONDCP functioned without a director. The office’s former director, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, resigned on Jan. 6.

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Walters was a coauthor, with Bennett and John DiIulio (who was recently named by President Bush to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives), of the 1997 book “Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs,” which warned of a coming wave of “superpredators” and called for longer sentences and more arrests.

Walters, who has taught political science at several universities, is president of the conservative group The New Citizenship Project, which advocates an enhanced role for religion in American public life.

Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the NORML Foundation, a drug reform organization, said “NORML and myself are very disappointed by this selection. We’d hoped that the Bush administration would turn away from the hyperbolic, table-thumping approach of Walters and his mentor, William Bennett, which was one of the most destructive periods in public policy in the last 30 years. Walters equates moral turpitude with drug use, and I’m afraid he’ll increase the harsh rhetoric coming out of the drug office’s bully pulpit.”

St. Pierre added that the selection of hard-liner Walters made it unlikely that a higher percentage of the drug office’s $22 billion budget would be spent on treatment and education, as opposed to enforcement and interdiction. “Under Nixon, the ratio was 50-50. Under Clinton, who was extremely hard-line on drug war enforcement although he didn’t use the bully pulpit as much as Walters would like, that ratio went up to 75-25.”

Daniel Forbes is a New York freelancer who writes on social policy and the media.

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