Almost seven weeks into his administration, President George Bush has yet to appoint a drug czar. For a nation in which addiction has become a chronic problem and drugs take a devastating toll, that does not inspire confidence.
There are three names on the short list for director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — former Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., Florida drug czar James McDonough and Maricopa County, Ariz., Prosecutor Rick Romley.
Robert B. Charles, former chief of staff to the House Speaker’s Task Force on Drugs, believes McCollum is the ideal candidate. Charles told me, “McCollum was a congressional leader on drugs. He pioneered legislation on drug-free workplaces. He worked closely with local activists and professionals in the areas of prevention, treatment and enforcement. And he has the stature to command instant attention.”
The White House is divided between those who know the issue and are deeply concerned, and those who view it as just another thing to be handled. The latter favor dropping the drug policy director from the Cabinet. They don’t seem to understand that while the public may not particularly care if the trade rep has Cabinet rank, they firmly believe the leader of our national anti-drug effort should.
During the campaign, Bush addressed the issue only once. “From 1979 to 1992, our nation confronted drug abuse successfully,” Bush reminded us. “It was one of the best public-policy successes of the 1980s.”
He did not exaggerate. In those years, high-school seniors who were current drug users dropped from 38.9 percent to 14.4 percent. Under Clinton, the drug culture rebounded. Last year, 25.1 percent of seniors used drugs in the past 30 days.
Drug-related emergency-room admissions are at a historic high — over 555,000 in 1999. Illegal drugs cost America $300 billion annually in health-care expenditures, crime and lost productivity. The human cost is incalculable.
Does the president understand that the success of the ’80s was due to tough law enforcement as well as effective education? At times, it seems Bush believes if he throws enough money at faith-based charities that work with addicts, the problem would disappear. (Unless he can give those charities guns and the addresses of dealers, too, that won’t happen.)
In the meantime, a decade of neglect has taken its toll. Eight states and the District of Columbia have passed medicinal pot measures, a significant step toward legalization. Billionaires like George Soros have poured millions into these initiatives, with no one except mom-and-pop anti-drug groups to oppose them.
Hollywood has rejoined the ranks of pushers. “American Beauty,” winner of five Oscars last year, romanticized drug use. “Traffic,” a best-picture nominee this year, is meant to show the futility of the law-enforcement approach to drugs.
Robert Downey Jr. was the cover boy in a recent issue of Newsweek that argued the drug war is a failure and addicts should be treated, not imprisoned. But Downey only seeks treatment when he’s in criminal court.
Wanted: a drug czar like William J. Bennett — who will bang the bully pulpit till the wood splits, confront the drug lobby in the ballot arena, and not neglect supply reduction and punishment.
As Bennett pointed out in a Feb. 18 Washington Post piece, treatment (which drug defeatists would substitute for everything else) has a modest success rate.
Only half who begin treatment programs complete them, and 25 percent of those relapse within five years. Thus, just 38 percent who enter rehab are cured. Besides, many addicts would never get treatment without a prison sentence hanging over their heads. Limiting supply, through interdiction and the incarceration of dealers, is far more effective.
The key to success is a coordinated approach — reduce supplies, limit sources and make punishment so severe that it deters casual users, from whose ranks hard-core addicts come. Combine this with treatment and education.
Drugs claimed the lives of 15,973 kids in 1998. Bush says he wants to cut taxes because he cares about families. But no one’s teen-ager ever overdosed on marginal tax rates.