Moral Poverty and Body Counts

John Walters is a veteran of drug policy shambles. As the deputy director under former drug czar William Bennett, he helped craft drug war policies that have shattered millions of lives, wasted billions of dollars and exacerbated America's drug crisis. He's a hard-core ideologue who misrepresents the facts and spouts tough-on-crime rhetoric.

In other words, John Walters is the Bush administration's perfect choice to be the next drug czar.

If Walters wins confirmation as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), as he is expected to do, don't expect many concrete changes. Like the recently departed drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, Walters is dedicated to more drug testing and zero-tolerance regimens, misrepresenting drugs as "an affliction mostly of the young," and funneling ever more cash to public relations, interdiction, police, prisons and -- if Walters has his way -- churches.

But unlike McCaffrey -- a dutiful soldier, but one who bumbled when off script -- Walters has a sophisticated understanding of drug issues and articulates them skillfully. This, combined with his unyielding ideology, makes him more dangerous than his predecessor.

ONDCP's goals, established in Bennett's 1989 National Drug Control Strategy when Walters was his deputy director, specifically targeted drug "use itself," not abuse or addiction. Policies stigmatized and punished "casual users ... because it is their kind of drug use that is most contagious." Conversely, the Strategy de-emphasized treating addiction because drug addicts are "a mess" who "make the worst possible advertisement for new drug use."

Bennett's strategy of neglecting drug abusers while punishing casual users worked exactly as designed. In the 1980s and early 1990s, arrests and imprisonments for drug law violations skyrocketed, self-reported drug use fell and drug abuse exploded. Federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports showed overdoses and hospitalizations skyrocketing, especially for those drugs most targeted by the drug war. In 1980, when Reagan took office, 28,000 Americans were hospitalized for abuse of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. In 1992, when Bush left office, the number was 175,000. In 2000, the latest figures available, 250,000 were hospitalized.

Normally, such a monumental policy disaster would invoke calls for fundamental reform from the highest levels, especially after voters in a dozen states have signaled their support for reform. However, because drug abuse is financially and politically profitable for drug war interests, the czar's only permissible role is promoting tougher policies and further escalation. Walters' record reveals the consummate doubletalk skills necessary to fulfill the office's task of redefining disaster as success while simultaneously warning that worse disaster looms.

Walters' claims of success, like McCaffrey's, rest upon limited portions of indexes of drug abuse and rely heavily on the most unreliable measure, self-reporting use surveys. From 1979 to 1992, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported, the percentage of people who said (truthfully or not) that they used illicit drugs in the past month dropped from 16 percent to 5 percent among teenagers and from 14 percent to 6 percent among adults. In a 1996 Heritage Foundation critique of Clinton drug policies, Walters credited "strong presidential leadership" for "a decade of consistent progress during the Reagan and Bush Administrations" that "helped rescue much of a generation." Yet, in President Clinton's first term, "the United States is losing -- some would say surrendering -- in the prolonged struggle against illegal drugs." Drug use is rising, and "the number of cocaine- and heroin-related emergency room admissions has jumped to historic levels" driven by falling prices and "increased availability of such relatively cheap drugs."

Walters' czarist capabilities are shown when he cites trends to indict Clinton's policies without mentioning how they equally discredit the Reagan-Bush drug war. From 1980 to 1992, heroin and cocaine prices dropped by 60 percent, heroin-related emergency admissions tripled, cocaine ER cases jumped 1,200 percent and drug-related murders quadrupled from 400 to 1,600. The Reagan-Bush era spawned the very "adolescent superpredators" Walters later mythologized to inflame national panic. His 1996 book, Body Count, coauthored with Bennett and John DiIulio, blamed "the alarming rise in teenage violence" on "a population of teenagers with a higher incidence of serious drug use, more access to powerful firearms, and fewer moral restraints than any such group in American history."

Walters qualifications to captain ONDCP are further revealed in his evasion of the role Reagan-Bush drug policy played in stoking inner-city violence. It is clear now, as it was then, that increased homicide and violent crime by young urban men in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not caused by their own drug use or what Walters labeled "moral poverty." In fact, adolescents, including inner-city youth, showed low drug abuse rates. Rather, the spike in gang violence in impoverished inner cities suffering high unemployment represented rational entrepreneurship among drug suppliers and gangs competing to reap immense profits from rapidly increasing demand for cocaine, crack and heroin.

Who created that demand? While Walters and other "experts" capitalized on deploring the violence by young black and Latino men at the street level of drug supply networks, none mentioned the customers: several million addicts, mostly middle-aged, suburban and white. The ranks of aging addicts soared amid the deliberate neglect advocated by Bennett drug strategy. During the Reagan-Bush reign, the number of adults 35 and older hospitalized for heroin and cocaine overdoses surged from 7,000 in 1980 to 130,000 in 1992, while hard-drug deaths leaped 800 percent.

Given his backwards definitions of "progress" and "rescue," it's not surprising that Walters' 1996 critique lambastes Clinton's "ineffectual ... focus on hard core drug users at the expense of stronger law enforcement and interdiction." Wrong in any case. Clinton's former drug czar, Lee Brown, belatedly advocated more treatment of addicts, but 70 percent of Clinton's drug budget went to law enforcement. Drug arrests rocketed from 1.1 million in 1992 to 1.6 million in 1996, the year Walters falsely accused Clinton of abdicating policing. Drug casualties continued to soar.

The latest federal reports show that after Republicans and Democrats spent hundreds of billions of dollars and imprisoned millions over the last 15 years, America now suffers its worst drug abuse crisis ever -- more annual drug-involved arrests (1.6 million), imprisonments (300,000), overdose deaths (16,000) and emergency treatments (600,000) than ever. But ONDCP thrives on policy shambles. In Walters, the office will have a drug czar experienced in presiding over them.

Mike Males, senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute and sociology instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, authored Kids & Guns: How Politicians, Experts and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth (home.earthlink.net/~mmales).

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.