Bush's Drug Policy Troika

Any signs of division on drug policy in the Bush administration disappeared this week, as did drug reformers' vain hopes that George W. Bush's occasional tender word would translate into positive policy shifts. Not only did Bush name the final member of his drug enforcement troika -- Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas has been tapped to head the Drug Enforcement Administration, joining Bill Bennett protégé John Walters as drug czar in waiting, and archconservative Attorney General John Ashcroft -- he made Walters' nomination official, and declared a new offensive in the federal government's war on drug users, sellers and producers.

It was a week of moves that can only leave a very bad taste in the mouths of the drug reform community, some elements of which had dared to dream that an administration headed by a man who knows alcohol close up and personal and has apparently had more than a passing acquaintance with cocaine might think outside the box on drug policy. Instead, Bush is turning drug policy into the playground of culturally conservative drug warriors.

On May 9, Bush put his official imprimatur on John Walter's nomination as drug czar in a White House Rose Garden ceremony, where he also went out of his way to burnish his own hard-liner credentials. The act came despite the chorus of complaints that rose after Dan Forbes broke news in Salon.com of Bush's intent to nominate Walters two weeks ago. Criticism has come from such unlikely sources as former drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Economist and even the National Review, a flagship publication of the conservative movement that is overwhelmingly friendly to the Bush White House.

"Acceptance of drug use is simply not an option for this administration," Bush told the gathered guests. "The only human and compassionate response to drug use is a moral refusal to accept it," Bush said. "Drug legalization would be a social catastrophe, it would completely undermine the message that drug use is wrong."

Walters, with a well-earned reputation of fondness for military interventions and long prison sentences, made token efforts to address concerns that he would ignore the treatment and prevention components of drug policy. He hopes to "shield our communities from the terrible human toll taken by drug use," he said, and will start by focusing on addiction.

"Our country has made great progress in the past in reducing drug use, and we will do it again," Walters vowed. "We will especially protect our children from drug use, we will help the addicted find effective treatment and remain in recovery, we will shield our communities from the terrible human toll taken by drugs and we will stop illegal drug use and the drug trade from funding threats to democratic institutions throughout our hemisphere."

Bush also announced three short-term initiatives designed to reinvigorate the drug war. He directed John DiIulio, who heads the White House's faith-based initiative office (and who coauthored an alarmist tome on teenage "superpredators" with Walters and Bennett) to find ways to allow religious groups engaged in anti-drug work to receive federal funds. He also directed Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to survey treatment needs and capacity across the country and report back within 120 days "on how to most effectively close the treatment gap in this country." And Bush instructed Attorney General Ashcroft to heighten the drug war in the federal prison system and expand drug testing of federal probationers and parolees. Ashcroft also must report back within 120 days.

The Washington Post, relying on anonymous administration sources, also reported that Walters will get a seat in the Cabinet, increasing his prestige and ability to influence policy within the executive branch. In the early days of the administration, officials had indicated the drug czar would lose Cabinet status.

If that wasn't enough for one day, presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer announced that all White House staff, including Bush and Vice President Cheney, had taken drug tests. On May 9 Fleischer coyly refused to reveal any test results, but the next day announced that all were drug free.

Also on May 10 came the official announcement that Bush will nominate Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) to head the Drug Enforcement Administration. Hutchinson is most widely known for his role as one of the House "managers" in the GOP's bitter and unsuccessful effort to impeach President Bill Clinton, but is also a hardline drug warrior.

While the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette managed to get the Drug Policy Foundation's William McColl to say a few kind words about Hutchinson, others in the drug reform movement were less impressed.

"What's interesting about him is he has shown a willingness to think outside of the box," McColl told the newspaper. "We're hopeful he will represent a reasonable and more moderate voice." McColl added that he hoped Hutchinson will try to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences that have filled the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders.

So far, however, Hutchinson's record appears to fall squarely inside the box. The former federal prosecutor has had a drug war burr under his saddle ever since he arrived in Washington. In office for less than two months, he stood on the House floor in March 1997 to blast the Clinton administration for "retreating" from the drug war.

"During the 1980s, our nation declared a war against drugs. I was in that battle as a federal prosecutor. It was during that time that our families, our communities and our law-enforcement officials mobilized in a united effort to fight this war. Because of this national crusade, teenage drug abuse declined from 1985 to 1992," Hutchinson declaimed. "Then what happened? It was then that our national commitment against this war on drugs waned. It was then that teenage drug use again started to increase, and we saw that teenage experimentation with drugs was on the incline."

He has also made a name for himself as an avid methamphetamine fighter, hammering at the theme repeatedly in floor speeches and letters to constituents, co-sponsoring last year's draconian Methamphetamine Antiproliferation Act and lobbying successfully to gain a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area for Arkansas, his home state.

In a floor speech urging his colleagues to vote for increased HIDTA funding, Hutchinson explained that because Arkansas produced methamphetamine "we would like to be designated a HIDTA" and urged his colleagues to ensure that Arkansas got part of the pork, even if only "at least a larger pool of money, a very modest, greater pool of money that the States can use in their existing HIDTA programs -- as well as a new one like Arkansas that might be so designated."

Not content with worrying about Clinton's morals and Ozark meth labs, Hutchinson has also gone out of his way to impose his views on the residents of Washington, DC, who in a 1998 ballot approved medical marijuana by a 2-to-1 margin. He voted in favor of a bill that barred the District from implementing the medical marijuana law or even counting its votes. The bill also barred the District's use of its own funds to support needle exchange programs.

But his opposition to marijuana would do more to deprive Washington residents of their medicine. He challenged the drug czar's office for even calling for a study of marijuana's medical efficacy in 1999, saying, "I'm concerned about this, again, because of the signals that we are sending to our young people. I believe that's the wrong way to go on this issue. If marijuana could be legalized for one purpose, I think the question is, why not some others?"

Hutchinson is also a strong supporter of U.S. military involvement in Colombia, which is consistent with the strong supply-reduction and interdiction orientation he demonstrated throughout his tenure in the House. He crowed to constituents about his support for 1998's Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, which was supposed to have reduced U.S. drug supplies by 80 percent by this year.

And while Hutchinson occasionally gives a nod to drug treatment and prevention, he has made crystal clear his stance on the war on drugs. In the Congressional Record in 1997, Hutchinson said we can only solve our drug problems "by reenergizing ourselves in this war on drugs. We must not retreat. It is not the time. We must not be satisfied to hide in the foxhole. It is imperative that we fight on."

"Welcome to the drug policy of the Cheney administration," moaned Institute for Policy Studies drug policy analyst Sanho Tree. "The compassionate conservative governor we heard about has disappeared. He may pop up every once in awhile to say a few nice words about treatment, but remember that a few months ago he was saying nice things about the environment, and now we're drinking arsenic water."


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