What has Barry McCaffrey been smoking?

The former drug czar goes dot-com with an Internet company that charges $1,200 for online drug treatment.

Published May 14, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

What's a former federal drug czar to do for his next act? It's not as if there are a whole lot of "czar" job listings floating around on Monster.com these days.

How about joining a dot-com that plans to charge drug addicts and alcoholics $1,200 for a 12-week group treatment program over the Web?

That's the premise of a San Jose Internet company with the unfortunate name eGetgoing, which Gen. Barry McCaffrey is lending his name and contacts to as a consultant. Now that McCaffrey has left the public-sector side of the war on drugs, he has taken up with a company that views heavy drinkers and drug addicts as a tantalizing target market of millions.

With the profit motive now on his side, treating addicts as an audience to capture instead of criminals to prosecute seems to suit McCaffrey: "EGetgoing will be a historic contribution to reducing drug and alcohol abuse in America," he crowed in a press statement. "EGetgoing's new Internet-based delivery mechanism will dramatically increase the likelihood that multiple millions of compulsive drug and alcohol users will find help." And so on.

As an advisor to the company, McCaffrey has been making TV appearances to promote it on local news affiliates, like the Bay Area Fox channel. He has introduced eGetgoing's corporate officers around Washington. He has even circulated a funding solicitation on his new consulting firm's letterhead to potential investors. "When you have the highest federal officer in the nation committing to a company like eGetgoing in its infancy," marvels CEO Barry Karlin, "it has given us a credibility which would have taken several years to try to build up. It gives us access to all kinds of people. That was obviously a real coup for us."

Some drug policy reformers don't quite see it that way. They're having a good laugh e-mailing the funding documents to each other. Mark Greer, a longtime critic of McCaffrey's policies who is executive director of DrugSense.org, wrote in an e-mail with the subject line "McCzar Hits Bottom :)," "If McCzar is actually affiliated with this loser of an idea, they must either have more money than sense and have paid him dearly for his involvement or perhaps they have convinced him that it could be a real dot-com winner and to partner with them on promises of future riches."

Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, says he has heard two reactions to McCaffrey's new gig among his fellow drug policy wonks: "It's a rip-off, and it's an Internet company that's likely to fail. You can look on the Web and find free Narcotics Anonymous in any city in the country. Come on, anyone who invests in this is making a mistake."

EGetgoing's Karlin says that the service isn't out to replace the free support that Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous provide. Instead the company will provide licensed counselors to lead group treatment sessions akin to the therapy you'd pay for at an outpatient drug treatment center. Of course, you'll never actually meet your therapist or see any of the other patients, because the whole thing will take place over videoconferencing software and voice-over IP.

The bumper sticker possibilities are endless: "Don't shoot up, dial up." "Need to light up? Log on!" Could the mighty Internet do what the federal government with all its tens of billions of dollars can't -- provide drug users with access to treatment instead of just locking them up, or has someone been smoking too much free-market rhetoric laced with Net euphoria circa 1998?

McCaffrey's journey from the Hill to a 30-person dot-com in San Jose began when one of his Office of National Drug Control Policy senior staffers quit to join eGetgoing last year. Judi Kosterman was a key member of McCaffrey's staff as the director of the National Center for the Advancement of Prevention when she left to become eGetgoing's vice president of business relations.

Those inside-the-Beltway connections could pay off if eGetgoing becomes a provider of treatment programs that substitute for prison sentences. Last year in California, for example, voters passed Proposition 36, which diverts nonviolent drug offenders into court-supervised treatment instead of prison. Whether states will accept drug treatment over a modem is still unclear, but knowing the policymakers will be key for eGetgoing.

Karlin is also CEO of C.R.C. Health Corp., which owns 29 residential and outpatient drug and alcohol treatment centers around the country. He plans to merge the two companies and then take the new entity public next year. Has the Internet meltdown dimmed his optimism? Not at all. "There was a shakedown of Internet companies that shouldn't have been public in the first place," he says. "The companies that have a compelling solution are going to make a lot of money, and we of course hope to be one of them." The company raised $4 million last year, and is currently trying to close a $5 million round of financing. Karlin boasts that the company will have 70 percent gross profit margins.

McCaffrey's move to corporate America isn't so unusual; there's a tradition of former federal drug officials cashing in when they leave office. But the usual path from the public to private sector leads straight to the urinal: Drug-testing consulting businesses that work with corporations to keep employees clean have been the greener pastures of choice.

"It's amazing how these people who work in the drug war field end up profiting from it later," says Zeese. "Carleton Turner, Reagan's top drug advisor, he went on to become a drug-testing consultant. And Bob DuPont, the former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the lead drug warriors in the Ford and Carter years, he went on to become a drug-testing and security consultant for private companies on drug use in the workplace. He teamed up with Peter Bensinger, former head of the DEA."

Compared with advising companies on how to get their office workers to pee in a cup, working for a for-profit dot-com drug treatment company seems downright progressive. And Zeese admits that the choice isn't entirely out of character for McCaffrey, based on his work in office: "He actually had a lot of rhetoric that was pretty good from a treatment perspective. 'We've got to treat it like a health problem. We can't arrest our way out of the problem.' But he couldn't make it happen in Congress without increasing the law enforcement budgets. And as a result, the treatment was primarily coerced treatment."

Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, who helped write the statute that created the office of drug czar, says: "It's in character with his rhetoric. I don't think it was in character with the actual budgets. He spoke fairly consistently about the need for an increase in treatment, but the other parts of the federal drug budget grew faster than the treatment portion."

The irony is that even in a best-case scenario, whatever online treatment services eGetgoing can offer drug addicts can't compare with what McCaffrey could have done had he had the political will and clout while in office.

For example, Sterling points out that in 1997 McCaffrey publicly challenged the Department of Defense over what he considered its inadequate commitment to the war on drugs, but he never made a similar challenge to the Department of Health and Human Services. "During the time that he was the drug czar, on the order of two-thirds of the hardcore drug addicts that needed treatment, according to the data in his annual reports to the nation, couldn't get it. We're talking about 3 million people per year unable to get treatment. The fraction of the gigantic HHS budget that could have been increased to adequately fund drug treatment was infinitesimal."

From a treatment perspective, the picture does not seem likely to get much brighter under the new administration. On Thursday, President Bush announced the nomination of John Walters as the new director of the Office of Drug Control Policy.

Of Walters, McCaffrey's likely successor, Sterling has this to say: "He thinks that not enough people are being prosecuted. He thinks that drug sentences are not long enough. He thinks that expanding the role of the military overseas is a good thing. He thinks that it makes sense to try to control the supply overseas."

Zeese sums it up: "The current drug czar that's being nominated today actually makes McCaffrey look like a softie. Everyone Bush is appointing is about as hawkish as you can imagine."

Which points to what may be the even greater irony: Perhaps we should all be rooting for McCaffrey's Internet treatment scheme, given the way the current administration's drug policy is shaping up.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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