Bush's New Plan Puts the Drug War on Autopilot

On Feb. 12, the Bush Administration released its national strategy for fighting drug abuse. Unfortunately, it offered no significant new approaches to controlling the drug market or preventing drug abuse. It looks like the drug war is on autopilot.

While the Bush strategy increased the budget for treatment programs by $121 million, it also cut prevention spending by $147.5 million. Law enforcement continued its consistent growth -- a 10 percent funding increase -- and the Andean Regional Initiative, an effort to fight drug production at its source, will receive a $106 million increase. In other words, law enforcement continues to receive two-thirds of the federal drug war budget, as it has for decades. But it is not too late for President Bush to take advantage of his historic opportunity to reprioritize the drug war.

The Bush family has shown character and leadership on substance abuse in the way it has dealt with its own family over the last two generations. The Bushes take care of family members who need help, find them treatment programs, protect their privacy, keep them from being incarcerated and make sure youthful indiscretions do not undermine promising careers. If they applied these principles to public policy, the U.S. would be handling drugs in a much more sensible, effective and humane manner.

Clearly, our current war against drugs has failed. Despite spending nearly $20 billion annually, drug-related incarcerations grow and drug-related health problems worsen. Adolescent abuse of both prescription and street drugs is increasing, heroin and cocaine are cheaper, more pure and more available, and health problems related to drugs -- especially the spread of HIV/AIDS and overdoses -- are mounting. Recent attempts to revive the moribund drug war by linking it to the war on terrorism is further drawing us into an expensive and ineffective jungle war in Colombia.

If President Bush applies the same compassionate approach that has served his family well -- and if he faces the facts of our failed national policy -- he will acknowledge that a new approach can more effectively address drug abuse at less economic and social cost. With the federal budget returning to deficit, our economy in recession and fighting a multi-front war on terrorism, it is a good time to chart a new course in drug policy.

Over the last three election cycles the public has shown it is ready for a new direction in drug policy. In fourteen statewide voter initiatives the public has supported treatment instead of prison, access to marijuana as a medicine and restraints on police authority to seize property. Public opinion polls show widespread recognition that current strategies have failed, and indicate support for treatment, prevention and less harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenders, especially marijuana consumers.

A national coalition of church, civil rights, public health, criminal justice and drug policy reform organizations has put together an alternative strategy to the drug war, one that is based on experience with what works. The plan includes:

1. Shifting resources into programs that have been proven effective -- prevention, treatment, education;

2. Making treatment available on request, paid for by insurance and Medicaid like any other health service;

3. Preventing drug abuse by investing in youth programs and providing them with accurate information;

4. Focusing law enforcement resources on the most dangerous and violent criminals;

5. Demilitarizing international drug control efforts and focusing on economic development;

6. Facing racial discrimination that exists throughout the justice system and restoring sentencing authority to federal judges;

7. Respecting state's rights by allowing, rather than obstructing, voter initiatives and state legislative actions;

8. Making prevention of HIV and other blood borne diseases a top priority.

This Eight point plan will cost substantially less and be much more effective. But it isn't just about saving money -- it is about protecting kids, saving families and preserving our long cherished American values.

With the conservative credentials of Attorney General John Ashcroft, drug czar John Walters and DEA Adminstrator Asa Hutchison, the Bush Administration has a unique opportunity to lead us to a new paradigm in drug control. They can honestly tell the public that the law enforcement approach has been tried -- it's been given sufficient funding, strong laws and exceptions to constitutional restrictions. But even after meeting its arrest, incarceration and drug seizure goals, it has failed to make America healthier or safer.

Let's hope the Bush Administration can be honest about the failure of three decades of drug war. If so, maybe it will embrace this moment and transform drug policy to an approach that actually works.

Kevin B. Zeese is the president of Common Sense for Drug Policy (www.csdp.org).

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