The Terror of the Drug Trade: 52,000 a year die from drugs
by Bob Weiner
published in The Washington Times, Monday, December 31, 2001


    Amid little fanfare, John Walters was confirmed this month as the nationís drug czar (Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy).  He succeeds Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the outspoken and charismatic four-star general who made a point of ending congressional criticism that the Clinton Administration was "AWOL in the War on Drugs."

      Mr. Walters has the misfortune of being handed stewardship over an ongoing national crisis at least as big as -- and financially a close cousin to -- terrorism, but doomed to overshadowing while the quite proper focus on terrorism and the new Office of Homeland Security remain paramount. His first attempt at a confirmation hearing even had to be canceled. It had been scheduled for the morning of September 11.

     Unlike Mr. McCaffrey's swearing-in six years ago by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg with the president present at a White House Roosevelt Room ceremony, Mr. Walters was sworn by a staff notary two blocks away with a few drug policy staffers looking on. Moreover, as one of his first acts, he had to give up his predecessor's White House office space.

      Yet we must remember: 52,000 people die a year in the United States from drug-related causes. Taxpayers spend more than $100 billion annually due to drug-related crime, domestic violence, hospital emergency room visits and other health-care problems, work absenteeism and job losses, school truancy, and loss of productivity.

      Terrorism itself is funded largely by drug-trafficking. For the last decade, Afghanistan has been the world's leading producer of opium and heroin. Colombia, the other leading center of terrorism with the most civilian murders of any nation, is now the world's largest cultivator and producer of cocaine.

      The first challenge of the new drug czar will be to get any attention paid to him, at all. But there are others. He will have to overcome a reputation for partisanship and chastising his predecessors despite their meaningful hard work and progress.

      Mr. McCaffrey, a registered independent, was enormously successful at mandating action and building coalitions with both sides of the congressional aisle to support and fund anti-drug media campaigns, community drug coalitions and foreign policy initiatives. At least partially as a result, the formerly rising youth drug use bubble went down 34 percent during Mr. McCaffrey's last three years; an additional 300 anti-drug coalitions were created; and Peru and Bolivia, formerly the world's leading coca cultivating nations, reduced their acreage by over 70 percent during the six years of Mr. McCaffrey's tenure, while Colombia has developed its own plan to do likewise.

     However, with the economy slowing, joblessness and homelessness up, and a reduced focus on the drug issue as terrorism remains the paramount concern, there is a real danger that the rising drug use of the early 1990s could soon return.

      Mr. Walters must now somehow generate the excitement and support to continue the progress of the last five years. In addition, he must defuse the myth perpetrated by legalizers that drug policy is failing and that the only possible recourse is to create a drug free-for-all. Mr. Walters needs to forcefully demonstrate that if legalizers ever have their way, drug use will, of course, go up, crimes such as domestic violence will go up -- not down, and all the attendant consequences of drug abuse will skyrocket, with society paying the price in all ways.

     He must also continue the enhanced cooperation with Mexico, the transit or supply source of over half the drugs entering the United States. And he needs to end the Mexico-bashing conducted by many in Congress, and point out that Mexico eradicates more drugs than any nation on Earth, and has doubled its seizures over the last three years. It isn't enough that Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox are on good terms.

     Another important thing is to expand drug treatment to demonstrate that he is not only serious but knowledgeable about reducing crime. There is a clear and irrefutable link between drugs and crime, and crime and treatment. Sixty-two percent of arrestees in 30 cities tested positive last year for illegal drugs, compared to six percent of the overall population who used drugs in the last month. Mr. Walters also needs to change the traditional thinking about treatment. Providing drug treatment is not "soft" or "liberal" -- it actually, demonstrably prevents crime.

     Mr. Walters must also fund technology at the scientific frontiers of drug abuse, including a cocaine blocker vaccine and brain scanners able to show the impact of drug abuse -- and continue to make the primary goal of national drug strategy education and prevention for children in order to reduce illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco.

     In addition, he must address the inevitable controversies like so-called "medical" marijuana. He needs to make clear that science, not politics, must determine what is safe and effective medicine and point out the obvious; hot, burning smoke in someone's throat is not it. Other THC forms are now being researched -- watch the legalizers run the other way; they aren't interested in suppositories, gels, patches and aerosols even though they apparently give the same medical benefit, without the "high." He must remind people of laetrile, touted as a "cure" for cancer in the 1960s and 1970s. Twenty-two states legalized it, and it turned out to be apricot pits -- useless medical garbage, encouraging avoidance of effective cures.

     Finally, Mr. Walters must be ready to do battle with advocates in popular culture, as in the movie Traffic -- implying failure of the drug war. He must be courageous and vocal in pointing out the facts. This movie and its message, written by a former cocaine user, ignores and thereby harms the successes of the nation's team effort against drugs at home and abroad, leading to widening and undeserved despair when in truth there are many reasons to take heart.

     John Walters should tell us that while we have a long way to go in our efforts against drug abuse and drug trafficking, there is a solid foundation upon which to build.

Bob Weiner was Spokesman and Director of Public Affairs for the White House National Drug Policy Office from May 1995 to August 2001.  He is now President of Robert Weiner Associates, a public affairs and issue strategies company.

Office address: Robert Weiner Associates, PO Box 28271, 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC  20038-8271.  Phone: 202-329-1700 or 202-361-0611.