Bush's drug two-faced drug war

The president claims treatment is the best way to lower the demand for drugs. So why is his new drug czar so obsessed with punishment and prisons?

Published May 17, 2001 4:17PM (EDT)

When George W. Bush introduced John Walters as his new drug czar last week, it was the strangest example of being of two minds since Ray Milland and Rosey Grier shared the same torso in "The Thing With Two Heads."

Talk about your mixed messages. There was the president, making a huge shift in national drug policy by pledging to close the nation's massive "treatment gap" while announcing the appointment of a man who is on record deriding the idea that "we need to embrace treatment." Silly me, I always thought presidents were supposed to appoint people to their Cabinet who, at least roughly, agree with them.

Instead, reading over Bush's and Walters' statements on the drug war, you can almost picture them manning opposite sides of the desk on a rancorous episode of "Crossfire." "The most effective way," the president said at the Rose Garden ceremony marking Walters' nomination, "to reduce the supply of drugs in America is to reduce the demand for drugs in America. Therefore, this administration will focus unprecedented attention on the demand side of this problem."

I half-expected Walters to leap from his seat and begin lashing out, as he has done so often in the past, at this "manifestation of the liberals' commitment to a 'therapeutic state' in which government serves as the agent of personal rehabilitation."

To which the president would no doubt have replied: Huh?

Despite study after study showing that money spent on treatment is far more effective in cutting drug use than interdiction and eradication, Walters has steadfastly clung to the bellicose, testosterone-fueled policies he championed as a lieutenant serving under drug warriors William Bennett and Bob Martinez in the late '80s and early '90s.

A big fan of "punishment and prisons," Walters was instrumental in creating the first Bush administration's Andean Strategy, a disastrous gift that keeps on giving: Without it we would never have seen Roni Bowers and her infant daughter murdered in the skies of Peru or the multibillion-dollar debacle now unfolding in Colombia.

And despite the tens of billions of dollars and the lives we've wasted prosecuting our failed drug war, Walters still feels that the answer to the crisis lies in flexing our military and law enforcement muscle just a little more. As he put it during the White House ceremony: "Our efforts rest on the knowledge that when we push back, the drug problem gets smaller."

What planet has this guy been on? Surely not the one where drugs are purer, cheaper and more available than they've ever been, even while we've devoted incredible resources to "pushing back."

I wonder if this musty, Ramboesque rhetoric was lost on the president, who only minutes before had promised a "human and compassionate response to drug use." Is he showing early signs of political schizophrenia? Or just an advanced case of rampant hypocrisy -- the latest manifestation of the administration's penchant for talking one kind of game while actually playing another?

Why else would the president overlook the fact that Walters, whom he called "the right person to lead America's anti-drug efforts," recently mocked the very notion that drug addiction was anything other than a lapse of moral character? "The therapy-only lobby is alive and well and more dogmatic than ever," Walters wrote in an op-ed headlined "Just Say No ... to Treatment Without Law Enforcement," scoffing at bleeding hearts who think that "addiction is a disease, not a pattern of behavior for which people can be held responsible."

You know, bleeding hearts like his new boss who, in January, said that "addiction to alcohol or addiction to drugs is an illness," and that "we've got to do a better job of ... helping people cure themselves of an illness." If that's true, how, exactly, is a person who contemptuously ridicules this "the right person"?

And treatment is far from the only facet of drug war policy on which the two men have been reading from different talking points. For example, Bush has expressed a willingness to reconsider the effectiveness of mandatory minimums: "I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long minimum sentences for first time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease."

Walters, on the other hand, has called the idea that "drug and criminal sentences are too long and harsh" one of the "great urban myths of our time." He should tell that to the 460,000 nonviolent drug offenders currently languishing behind bars. Sadly, it's no myth -- just a nightmare -- that the average federal sentence for a drug offense is 78 months, over twice the average sentence for manslaughter. That's manslaughter -- as in killing someone.

Walters' appointment is like the clock that strikes 13: Not only is it wrong itself, it throws into question every hopeful, pro-treatment statement Bush has made since assuming office. Heightening these suspicions is the amount of money Bush has allocated for treatment: $320 million a year.

With around 3 million addicts who are not getting treatment, that works out to roughly $100 a year -- or 29 cents a day -- for each of them. Hardly indicative of a policy Bush claims is "a high priority." Especially when compared to the $1.8 billion that's been earmarked for Colombia, or the $19 billion budget Walters will be overseeing.

The president waited three months to make this regressive Cabinet appointment. Who would he have picked if he'd taken another three months to search for "the right person" -- Attila the Hun?

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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