Portrait of a drug czar

By Arthur Allen



Salon Staff
September 6, 2000 11:38PM (UTC)

Read the story

It is sad that Salon focused on the views of a few detractors in writing its profile of director McCaffrey. Instead, you would have been better served to listen to the overwhelming number of individuals whom the director has mentored; the soldiers whose lives he protected; and the countless young people whose futures his leadership has helped safeguard from drugs.

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We should all be judged on results, not nameless innuendo. Last week, director McCaffrey and Secretary Shalala released the results of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Over the last two years, youth drug use has fallen by 21 percent. The study also showed a 26 percent drop in marijuana use during 1997-99 for 12- to 17-year-olds. This week, the Pride survey confirmed the positive trend of the Household Survey: Pride found the largest single-year decline in youth drug use since 1991.

Across the board, our efforts are paying dividends for American families. Youth attitudes are improving: The percentage of seventh to 12th graders who strongly agree that "kids who are really cool don't use drugs" increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 1999. The number of drug-related murders has dropped to the lowest point in over a decade. And a study released this July found that workplace drug use has fallen to an 11-year low (4.6 percent down from 13.6 percent in 1988).

Such significant progress against a problem as complex as drug use does not come easily or without effort. Without question, the demands on our ONDCP staff are significant. However, when you accept a position in a White House office you fully understand that the responsibilities are great, they come with the territory. And, why should the taxpayers demand any less?

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No one works harder to combat drug use than ONDCP director Barry McCaffrey, a graduate of the lead-by-example school. His commitment is paying dividends.

-- Robert Housman
assistant director, strategic planning
White House Drug Policy Office

Arthur Allen responds:

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The statistics that Rob Housman brandishes in his letter are selective, as one would expect from any government agency flaunting its real and imagined achievements. As my story suggested, based on the limited information I had prior to the release of the 1999 data, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse did show an apparent drop in drug use (to 1996 levels) among 12- to 17-year-olds (although an appendix to the survey points out that the comparative data "have limited use" because of a statistical manipulation required to get the data to behave). However, that's not all the survey showed. It also showed that the drop in drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds was mirrored by an increase in drug use among 18- to 25-year-olds. And while Housman cites an increase among those who agree with the statement, "kids who are really cool don't use drugs," the Household Survey data show a contradictory trend -- a gradual decline, in the time since Barry McCaffrey became drug czar, in the percentage of teenagers who believe that cocaine and marijuana use pose a great risk of harm.

None of this was really the subject of my article. Salon has previously tackled the central drug policy issue; the question of whether lowering the percentage of teenage marijuana users a few points -- if we cede the argument that McCaffrey is really responsible for a decline -- is really worth all the billions of dollars the drug war expends and the hundreds of thousands of screwed-up lives that it helps produce. The story, as advertised, reflected the persistent complaints of people who worked for Barry McCaffrey and came to believe that his unrelenting egotism and self-promotion had come to overshadow such positive achievements as he could lay claim to. I'm afraid that Housman's glibly triumphant letter reflects the tone of McCaffrey's operation all too well.

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