What's the Drug Czar's Problem?

The headline over a recent National Journal article about U.S. drug czar John Walters seems fairly mundane: "Drug Czar Plays Defense." But the subtitle generates more interest. "If you can name the current drug czar, you are probably mad at him."

Sounds accurate, at least in my personal situation. But I'm opposed to the whole concept of a federal drug czar, and I find the tactics of Walters little more despicable than his predecessors. In the National Journal, however, other drug warriors just as conniving and dishonest as Walters describe an unlikable bureaucrat, both imperious and isolated.

Former employees, law enforcement officials, even hard-line congressional drug warriors like Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, seeming ideological soulmates of Walters, express their irritation with the czar and the current state of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Representatives from drug war special interest groups and even other federal agencies seem offended that Walters and top level ONDCP staff have met with them rarely, if at all, since Walters took the helm.

At the risk of rubbing salt in those wounds, I can't help but recall that Walters took time and resources to fly himself and/or other top ONDCP personnel to at least two separate legislative committee meetings here in my home state of Illinois during the past 14 months.

There have been trips to other states to influence either legislative or electoral processes. These ethically questionable trips have raised complaints about the ONDCP's failure to comply with local lobbying laws. The ONDCP has always responded that it is above the law.

When Walters himself appeared in my state capitol a few months ago, he lied right into the faces of lawmakers about why he was here. He wasn't there to improperly influence the legislators who were considering a medical marijuana bill, he claimed, as if there was a proper way for an appointed federal official to pressure state lawmakers.

The National Journal article implicitly blames the czar's popularity problems on personality clashes, conflicting styles, and fierce competition for limited resources. But, as his lobbying hijinks indicate, I think Walters may have inadvertently identified the real problem some years ago.

Back in 1996, Walters co-authored a book called Body Count. The book argued that crime wasn't caused by a lack of material wealth; it was instead caused by the inability of society to instill a sense of right and wrong in young people. Jobs and money weren't the problems, according to the book, values were. The authors found a concise phrase for what they saw as the issue: moral poverty.

I disagree with the conclusions of the book, but now I see how the concept of moral poverty may be useful in other areas. Like the drug czar's office, with its big budget and limited ethics.

Walters declined to be interviewed for the National Journal article. But one of his underlings said the proof of Walters' success is a decline in reported drug use (a dubious statement at best), and that the office was able to pull off a series of ads painting drug users as terrorists. The ads failed, like the whole anti-drug ad campaign, which continues to be infused with federal money.

Hence the problem. At this point, Walters has to know what's up. He has a lot more information to willfully ignore than those who came before him. Former drug czar Barry McCaffrey may have really believed taxpayer-supported anti-drug ads were a good idea, but now Walters has all the evidence to demonstrate they were not.

If a fact doesn't support prohibition, Walters twists it or ignores it. Such a strong commitment to a clearly bankrupt policy from someone who should know better indicates serious moral poverty. Perhaps it goes beyond that. A false idol has been made of prohibition, and Walters and his colleagues bow down to it no matter how it degrades them or the rest of us. To me, that's immoral and disgusting. Walters may be playing defense, but in the most offensive manner.

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