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April 23, 2005 - The National Journal (US)

Drug Czar Plays Defense

If You Can Name the Current Drug Czar, You Are Probably Mad at Him

By Paul Singer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Republican and Democratic members of Congress, law enforcement officials around the country, academics who study drug policy, even former and current staff members are raising complaints about the performance of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Under the leadership of John Walters, the office is accused of retreating from its mission, abandoning key programs without consulting with Congress, and losing (or forcing out) key staff members with years of experience.

Walters "is on the verge of gutting his own office," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who chairs the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources. "This is a period of more turmoil than we have had since the Bush administration took over, inside ONDCP."

Walters has clearly lowered the profile of the office, critics say, and in some cases, withdrawn from consultation even with the agency's allies.

"Under the previous administration, as the president of a national group, we frequently met with the director and other ONDCP executive staff," said Ronald Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition. "We have only had one meeting like that since Walters took over four years ago, and that meeting happened right after he took over, and we haven't had one since."

"Without a dialogue, sitting in a policy office inside the Beltway, how do you make great decisions if you don't ask anybody?" Brooks asked.

Thomas Riley, Walters's spokesman, vehemently denies that his boss is deflating the office, saying that any internal turmoil is a result of Walters's commitment to strong management principles: demanding accountability from staff, eliminating inefficiencies in the bureaucracy, and moving programs to other departments and agencies that are better equipped to run them. Walters declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Teen drug use is down dramatically over the past three years," Riley said, citing one statistic that he says is a barometer of ONDCP's success. "Is it the function of the office to constantly go around ringing alarm bells and saying, 'Drugs are out of control! Drugs are running rampant!'? No, it isn't. It is to take the president's national drug control strategy which is issued every year, and to work with federal agencies and make sure they are following the strategy."

Part of the criticism seems to emanate from Walters's personal style, which distinguishes him from his predecessors.

Walters, who served as chief of staff to William Bennett, the first drug czar, and spent several years between government stints heading a national association of philanthropies, does not have the high public profile or love of the media shared by his mentor and Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey. Instead, he is widely viewed as a low-key policy maven with a brusque personal style.

"John is an administrator and a planner and doesn't see himself,I think, in quite the same public role that I did or Barry McCaffrey did," Bennett said. "I was already the beneficiary of the nation having its attention fixed on the issue." Bennett described Walters as "very tough, very hard-driving," and said that those are good qualities for the office. "He wants to get it right; he doesn't want to get elected," Bennett said.

But beyond style, Walters has initiated policy changes and management reforms that have rankled his staff and an array of interested stakeholders. The president's budget proposal for next year, which significantly reduces funding for drug assistance to state and local governments, has produced howls of protest from the officials who run these programs -- and from the members of Congress who represent them.

The Rand think tank has issued a report suggesting that the nation's drug policies are badly misdirected. And a small group of current and former ONDCP employees complain that Walters has run off the office's most experienced senior staff. The agency reported to Congress last year that most of the 17 senior career employees of the Office of Demand Reduction had resigned, retired, or been transferred since 2001, including three employees, with more than 20 years of combined experience in the drug czar's office, who retired on one day in August 2003.

The focal point for recent criticism of the drug czar's office has been the president's proposal to cut the budget for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program by more than half and move the program to the Justice Department.

The program provides funds to help coordinate the anti-drug efforts of law enforcement agencies in specific geographic areas. Established in 1990 in five regions -- Houston, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, South Florida, and the U.S./Mexico border -- with a budget of about $25 million, the anti-trafficking program has grown to encompass 28 areas that cover parts of 43 states. Its 2005 budget is $228 million.

In December, ONDCP issued a report touting the successes of the high-intensity programs in each region, and included a cover letter from Walters proclaiming, "This past year, the HIDTA program continued to bring federal, state, and local law enforcement together to make a measurable difference in disrupting the market for illegal drugs."

But two months later, the White House unveiled a budget request that cut the program by more than half, to $100 million for next year, and transferred it to Justice. Officials in the drug czar's office have repeatedly defended the cut, saying that the program was "unable to demonstrate results" under the new White House performance assessment system.

The president's proposed drug budget also eliminates "Safe and Drug-Free Schools" grants; cuts ONDCP's technology assistance to state and local law enforcement; proposes flat funding for the national anti-drug media campaign; and cuts the administrative budget for ONDCP by $2 million, a 10 percent decrease that officials say reflects lower overhead.

State officials who run the high-intensity programs -- so alarmed by the White House budget proposal that they reached into their own pockets to create a new association to fight the cuts -- said they have plenty of results to boast about, and that ONDCP had been working with state officials to develop new performance measures.

Tom Gorman, president of the new National HIDTA Directors Association, said that the measurement system indicates that the program "disrupted or dismantled" 509 international, 711 multistate, and 1,110 local drug-trafficking organizations, and that it dismantled "51 percent of the methamphetamine manufacturing operations in the nation" last year. But ONDCP did not have this information, Gorman said, because "Director Walters still hasn't asked for the results of this new performance measurement system."

Walters testified in February that the anti-trafficking program had lost its focus by expanding from five to 28 communities, and that moving the program to the Justice Department was the best way to sharpen its focus. The program is meant to coordinate law enforcement activities, which is the Justice Department's area of expertise, government officials argue.

Souder said that the biggest concern about the proposal to cut the anti-trafficking program is that ONDCP apparently consulted with no one outside the White House, despite the cut's potential to significantly affect anti-drug programs around the country.

"It's the arrogance of it which upset me so much," Souder said. "They didn't talk to anybody."

This is a recurring complaint about Walters's management of ONDCP -- that the office is not big on communicating with outside parties, even though its primary statutory mission is to coordinate the drug policies of all federal agencies.

John Carnevale, a longtime drug policy aide who served on the Bush transition team for ONDCP, said, "The interagency process that ONDCP is charged by statute with leading has completely broken down."

In responses to questions posed by Congress last year, ONDCP acknowledged that it had suspended regular meetings of the "demand reduction working group," a twice-yearly meeting of senior political appointees from the federal agencies involved in anti-drug efforts. An upcoming congressional report reviewed by National Journal expresses a broader concern that "ONDCP has not been exercising the kind of active leadership, oversight, and coordination of executive branch drug-control efforts envisioned by Congress in 1998." The FBI, the Coast Guard, and other agencies involved in anti-drug efforts are under enormous pressure to shift resources to anti-terrorism activities, the report warns, and that pressure "requires a strong and effective response from ONDCP. That response has not yet been nearly strong or effective enough."

Riley says these charges are simply wrong. For example, ONDCP coordinated production of a controversial TV advertisement during the 2005 Super Bowl, linking casual drug use to terrorist activities that are funded by drug profits.

Those ads required "an unprecedented effort of interagency coordination," Riley said. "There has never been another series of ads, I am certain, of any kind, that have required as much interagency coordination as those ads. We involved almost every agency that could even tangentially touch on the issue of terror, showed them early drafts of the scripts, drafts of the ads, cleared them through the National Security Council and through all the other agencies -- and frankly, no other agency would have been able to put something like that together."

ONDCP has also led government efforts to fight steroid abuse, Riley said, worked with the Education Department to promote student drug testing, and convened an interagency group to consider ways to boost the role of medical professionals in diagnosing and treating drug abuse.

One of the administration's signature programs, the "Access to Recovery" initiative that Bush announced in 2003 to provide drug users with vouchers for treatment, is an ONDCP effort conceived by Walters and funded at $100 million a year. The initiative, which also allows increased involvement by faith-based treatment providers, has required a tremendous amount of interagency coordination, according to Riley.

Stephenie Colston, a senior adviser at the Health and Human Services Department's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said her agency maintains close contact with ONDCP and other federal agencies on specific projects, sometimes through informal communication and sometimes through meetings. The public-affairs and press staffs of the various agencies have a weekly conference call to coordinate activities, for example. But Colston said that no regular interagency strategy meetings have taken place in the two and a half years she has been at her agency. "In terms of a formal convened meeting, I can't think of one," she said. But "it doesn't mean we don't communicate regularly."

Several former staffers and some current ones, mostly speaking on background, argue that interagency coordination has become more difficult because many of the senior staff at ONDCP who maintained those informal relationships have been reassigned, pushed into retirement, or demoted since Walters took office in December 2001. John Gregrich, a former official who joined ONDCP in 1991 and left in 2003, said that Walters began "harassing" career employees with a series of petty conduct complaints -- about showing up late for meetings, taking a long lunch hour -- to justify punishing them or to simply make retirement an attractive option.

Gregrich, who at one point served as acting deputy director for demand reduction, says he was ultimately told by his political bosses to stop communicating with other agencies and was denied permission to participate in professional conferences. "In essence," Gregrich said, "it was, 'Sit on your hands in your office while we figure out how you are failing to perform.' "

Gregrich was also caught up in the turmoil over Andrea Barthwell, a physician appointed by Walters to head the Demand Reduction Office. In a March 2003 investigation of a hostile workplace complaint that Gregrich filed against Barthwell, an investigator appointed by ONDCP concluded, "The management method currently being employed has created an atmosphere of intimidation." Office managers misplaced documents, then blamed staff for failing to submit them; employees were reprimanded for failing to carry out conflicting orders; and Barthwell made inappropriate and vulgar comments to her subordinates, the investigator reported. Barthwell remained in her position at ONDCP until July 2004, when she launched an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Barthwell's spokesman said she apologized for her inappropriate comments, attended sensitivity training, and considered the matter resolved.

Most senior aides in Barthwell's office departed, and Barthwell has not been replaced. "There has been a flushing of the Demand Reduction Office," said a Democratic congressional staff member. A Republican Hill aide says that with the loss of the expertise of senior career staff, "there has been a problematic lack of depth" in ONDCP. Gregrich questions how Walters could allow such a poor management situation to continue for so long.

Riley argues that the criticism is largely coming from disgruntled former employees. "We have had a lot of vigor in putting the strategic management of human capital into an agency that didn't really do very much of that in the past -- through performance plans, through measurable and accountable performance goals which were not there before. This has created a lot of tension among people who might not have benefited from such levels of accountability," he said. "In any organization, whether it is a government organization or private-sector organization, where people come in and want to be serious about imposing accountability in the personnel system, you are going to have people who are going to be disgruntled."

Walters defended his management and his budget at a February hearing. "This isn't about how many bureaucrats it takes to do the job," he said. "It's about the kind of job we can do for the country, and if we can be more efficient. Nobody's gutting my office. Nobody's forcing me to take fewer people. I'm suggesting that we can consolidate and focus our energies ... [and become] more effective in the future with fewer people."

But a recent Rand study suggests that the nation's drug policies are too heavily weighted toward enforcement rather than prevention, a trend that is becoming more pronounced under Walters.

Including the anti-drug efforts of the Defense Department, the Homeland Security Department, and others, the president's budget targets only about 13 percent of federal anti-drug spending to prevention; interdiction and enforcement get much larger shares.

The Rand study calls that imbalance bad policy. "If enforcement were able to produce greater progress toward drug policy goals [such as reduced use or reduced availability of drugs] per dollar spent on it, it might justify the emphasis," Rand concluded. "The best available evidence suggests, however, that that is not the case."

Riley argues that the ultimate measure of success is the reduction in drug use that has occurred during Walter's tenure. In 2002, Bush issued a drug strategy that set a goal of a 10 percent reduction in teen and adult drug use within two years and a 25 percent reduction within five years. Statistics released by ONDCP in December 2004 showed a 17 percent reduction in teen drug use over three years, "exceeding the president's goal and bringing drug use to its lowest levels since the early 1990s," the office proclaimed.

But Carnevale and other critics argue that Walters should not get the credit for that achievement. "Drug use is down, but what does that have to do with Mr. Walters?" Carnevale asked. "He is just the beneficiary of a trend that began in 1996. The trend was going up until 1996, and it took a sharp turn down in 1996 and has been trending downward ever since."


  • Category 2006 Bush Budget Change From 2005
  • Domestic Law Enforcement $3.4 -2.1%
  • Treatment 3.3 +4.5
  • Interdiction 2.9 +8.2
  • Prevention International 1.6 -20.5
  • Eradication 1.4 +21.4
  • Total $12.4 +2.2%

Source - Office of National Drug Control Policy

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