March 12, 2004 - The Drug War Chronicle

A Message from the [DRCNet] Executive Director About Our Drug Czar

By David Borden

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Dear Drug War Chronicle Reader:

This past Tuesday night, as part of a group organized by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, I attended a speech by US drug czar John Walters at The George Washington University here in DC. You may remember that our lead article from last week's issue discussed the warping in this year's "National Drug Control Strategy"document of the presentation of federal drug budget numbers to create an appearance of equality between enforcement and interdiction vs. treatment and prevention spending ( In reality the budget split is still roughly 2-1 in favor of enforcement. ONDCP created a 1-1 appearance by omitting the cost of incarcerating drug offenders from the budget numbers.(!)

I was amazed by how brazenly Walters not only stood by, but bragged about, his budget deception. We didn't even have to wait for his speech to hear about it. It was built into the introduction a student gave for him, which was almost certainly provided by his office, in which she listed among Walters' accomplishments the reworking of the budget presentation to be more honest or accurate.

I raised the issue with Walters during the question-and-answer session following his speech. His answer doesn't pass the straight face test, though remarkably he did manage to keep a straight face. Walters' line was that there are some budget items that are not exclusively focused on drugs. He brought up the example of the Headstart program, for which the federal government provides some drug prevention money. He then pointed out that some drug offenders are also convicted of other crimes and are sentenced to prison time for all of them. In order to make the budget reporting more "honest," Walters stated, they now omit all drug spending, be it enforcement or demand reduction, from the budget entirely.

Those of you who have been with DRCNet for awhile remember that we frequently and enthusiastically pointed out the numerous lies and distortions perpetrated by the former drug czar, retired general Barry McCaffrey. But Walters this month has taken it to a new level. During the Clinton administration, McCaffrey and staffers would frequently exclaim that "empowering young people to stay off drugs is the number one priority of the National Drug Control Strategy."

An examination of the Strategy document revealed that there was a set of five priorities, appearing on a certain page, which included prevention programs for kids and which listed such programs first. But a look at the numbers showed that the government's "number one priority" actually was receiving the smallest amount of money out of all the priorities they listed. But now, so much for spin. Walters has actually altered the numbers themselves! And he went further to alter the presentation of the budget numbers for previous years too. Does the word "Orwellian" come to mind?

One of the ways that Drug War Chronicle plays an important role in drug policy reform is in producing a serious journalistic product to expose such shenanigans and help enlighten the mainstream media's coverage of the issue. When we discuss important drug policy issues such as this one with reporters from major media outlets (as we are in this case, in fact), having an in-depth article on the subject to hand to them or e-mail them a link for makes it a lot easier to get the point across. And that article having been written by us, and sent to tens of thousands of our own subscribers, gives us credibility with them. Contributions by readers such as yourself make up a major component of Drug War Chronicle's funding. So thank you for enabling us to make a difference!

I have a little more to say about the event itself. First, one of the attendees raised the issue of the Higher Education Act drug provision, a law which delays or denies federal financial aid for college to students with drug convictions, no matter how minor. Walters responded by discussing how the law's author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), believes his law has been misinterpreted by the Dept. of Education and is being applied to students for whom it wasn't intended.

Souder does indeed say that; he claims that the law was not meant to penalize people whose drug convictions were in the past. Hence, his new legislation -- which Walters pointed out may pass during this session of Congress -- would limit the applicability of the law to those who were in school and receiving aid at the time their offense was committed. There is nothing in the text of the law to back him up on the idea that that was what he intended; it's just not there.

Who knows, maybe he did intend it that way and did an extremely poor job of writing his bill. Though it's important to note that the law in the new form he wants would still punish people whose offenses were in the past -- for multiple convictions even the distant past -- if they were in school and receiving aid during those past times. It's also important to note how valuable in PR terms having his own "fix" to the bill has been for Rep. Souder, who can purport to be the "reformer" fixing a bill that he wrote himself.

But back to Tuesday night. Walters, discussing the Souder reform, did not stick to the facts about the legislation. Walters actually said the Souder fix would limit it to drug traffickers and other major figures, not possessors or other low-level offenders. Which simply isn't true -- the new Souder version of the law would still apply it to any drug offender, no matter how minor, even first-time possession -- so long as the individual was in school at the time of the offense. In short, Walters wildly overstated the Souder side in a way that even Souder never did!

Third, one of my colleagues, Doug McVay, brought up the issue of a bill passed by the Virginia legislature, now on its way to Gov. Perry's desk, which if signed will restrict access to methadone maintenance programs by limiting their locations. McVay asked Walters we he didn't come out against the bill; methadone is the most important treatment for heroin addiction available in the United States.

Walters got very defensive, clearly not happy to be criticized on an issue that he sees himself as supporting. He said that he wasn't aware of the bill, that he can't run every state, and that he isn't responsible for every bill offered by every conservative in every state legislature just because he's a conservative. He said if a member of the legislature or the media had asked him, he would have said he thinks it's a mistake. Those remarks found their way into the Roanoke Times this morning (, with more of them from other official ONDCP spokespersons, prompting defensive remarks by the law's sponsors.

ONDCP has been supportive of methadone maintenance, under drug czars of both the present and the immediate past, and has taken some steps to encourage the opening up of the therapy to more people. But they've only gone to a certain point in how hard they've been willing to work for it. One of the great failings of the drug court system is that many, perhaps most drug courts don't accept methadone as a treatment to satisfy their requirements. Though most drug courts operate at the state or local level, the federal government is a major funder of them. ONDCP therefore has substantial influence in this area, and drug courts figure prominently in the Strategy document under the "Healing America's Drug Users" section. But how can drug courts do a good job of healing users if they ignore the overwhelming medical and scientific evidence favoring methadone and refuse to allow it! Yet ONDCP has evidently not sought to move the drug courts significantly in that direction.

Several years ago, during Barry McCaffrey's tenure, McVay's long-time employer, Common Sense for Drug Policy, ran an ad featuring McCaffrey with a Pinocchio nose, listing five completely false statements he had made on drug policy issues, plus one correct one -- on methadone -- followed with the tag line, "One Out of Six is Not Good Enough!" ( Well six years later, I think one out of six is still not good enough, especially when that one only gets half or less the effort. Not enough of a reason to give them a pass on the other five!

I believe that Walters has gone too far this time and is going to get called on it. With your participation and support, DRCNet can help make that happen. Thank you for being a part of that effort.

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