The right stuff

President-elect Bush should make reform-minded New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson his drug czar.

Published January 9, 2001 7:14PM (EST)

While the Washington media is all a-titter about the expected confirmation battle over Attorney General-designee John Ashcroft -- does he or doesn't he have a statue of Robert E. Lee tucked away in his closet? -- next to no attention is being paid to the fact that a vital Cabinet-level position remains unfilled. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey is gone (can't you feel the void?) but no one is even speculating about who President-elect George W. Bush will name to succeed him.

So let me step into the breach and suggest a nominee. He's a popular Republican governor, the first in his state to be elected to two consecutive four-year terms, the only governor to complete the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, a model of abstinence who doesn't drink and an expert on drug policy who, on the same day that McCaffrey held his rambling farewell press conference, oversaw the release of a report by a blue-ribbon drug policy panel detailing a comprehensive strategy for really tackling the drug problem.

Mr. Bush, I give you New Mexico's Gary Johnson. I understand you two are already friends -- in fact, I hear you guys had a darn good time this weekend when, with other Republican governors, he visited your ranch. Now, like you, he used to party. But, unlike you, once in office he didn't hypocritically introduce tougher drug sentences for first-time offenders and instead launched a crusade for sensible drug policies. As drug czar, he would have the courage and the passion -- and, yes, the compassion -- to lead the nation in a long-overdue debate on this critical subject.

According to one of the proposals Johnson has endorsed, individuals "convicted of minor drug-possession offenses would be given prevention and treatment rather than jail." A drug czar who is clear about the urgent need to shift from supply reduction to demand reduction is all the more important if Ashcroft survives the confirmation process. "A government which takes the resources that we would devote toward the interdiction of drugs," Ashcroft has said, "and converts them to treatment resources ... is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least."

When the New Mexico Legislature convenes on Jan. 16, Johnson will introduce eight bills designed to reform his state's drug policies, including allowing the use of medical marijuana for terminally ill patients, decriminalization of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.

It seems that these days everyone is calling for an end to mandatory minimum sentences, from President Clinton in his recent Rolling Stone interview to Gov. George Pataki of New York in his 2001 State of the State address. But those horrible laws are still the law of the land because there is absolutely no leadership on the issue. And that's what the new drug czar could provide.

I asked Gov. Johnson what he would do if he were tapped to replace McCaffrey. "The first thing I would do," he told me, "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." He quickly 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."

Joe Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, also calls for boldness. "The new drug czar," he told me, "should be a preacher, a leader who understands that the most important part of the job is using it as a bully pulpit. And since those disproportionately affected by the drug war are poor and African-American, maybe the next drug czar should be Jesse Jackson."

The image of Bush appointing Jackson makes the head spin so much that the idea of Bush appointing Johnson suddenly enters the realm of the possible.

The bottom line for Bush is that drug policy, an issue he avoided like the Ebola virus during the presidential campaign, is where he has the greatest opportunity to quickly demonstrate that he is indeed a reformer with results. And if he wants to build bridges to the African-American community that so overwhelmingly rejected him, few things could be more effective than stemming the flood of black youths pouring into our nation's prisons.

Whatever Bush decides, it will be disastrous if he actually takes McCaffrey's glowing curtain lines at face value. The departing drug czar lauded treatment over incarceration but, in fact, 69 percent of his budget went to law enforcement and interdiction, while 60 percent of addicts who needed treatment didn't get it. He also claimed that he was "upbeat," which must have had more to do with his going off to teach at West Point. The record-level number of deaths, the record emergency room admissions from drug use and the record incarcerations for drug law violations are now somebody else's problem. Ours.

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. I nominate Gov. Gary Johnson. Is there a second?

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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