Drug czar assures repeat of past failures

While the national drug movement and voter reform efforts move toward humane, effective strategies, John Walters, President Bush’s choice for drug czar is a giant step backwards.

You will agree that we have no time to lose in making a dent in the stalled war on drugs. About 26 million people in the U.S. are addicted to drugs or alcohol, with 85 percent of all crimes related to drug or alcohol addiction. Taxpayers spent more than $150 billion in drug-related criminal and medical costs in 1997.

Walters’ nomination for director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is pending before the Senate after being approved by the Judiciary Committee. I strongly disagree that if confirmed, Walters is the right man for the job. A protege of former drug director William J. Bennett, Walters is considered a hardliner in the drug fight. His writings depict him as viewing drug addiction as a problem to be solved by courts and prisons rather than a public health issue that can be resolved through hospitals and treatment.

Walters’ law-enforcement approach runs afoul of the voter reform measures, such as California’s Proposition 36, which passed by a two-to-one margin. Critics have noted that decades of the law enforcement, lock-’em-up approaches supported by Walters have helped land 500,000 Americans behind bars and consumed tens of billions of tax dollars without reducing the demand whatsoever.

Yet, Walters would continue that failed policy, according to his writings on drug policy. In a recent op-ed piece Walters wrote that research showing that the criminal justice system is imprisoning too many people for drug possession, unjustly punishes Black men and the sentencing is too long and harsh are “the three greatest myths of our time.”

Those positions run counter to the facts:

• The average federal sentence for a drug offense in 1997 was 78 months, more than twice the average sentence for manslaughter (30 months).

• Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing policies, a conviction for possession with intent to distribute powder cocaine carries a five-year sentence for 500 grams.

• With crack cocaine, the same offense carries a five-year sentence for only 5 grams.

• About two-thirds of the crack users are white or Hispanic, yet the vast majority of persons convicted of possession in federal courts are African Americans.

Walters’ extreme positions have even come under attack from the Betty Ford Center. “Walters may not have the confidence in the treatment and prevention strategies that we believe are necessary for the creation and implementation of a balanced and thoughtful approach to U.S. drug policy,” according to a statement from the Center.

With life, property and our nation’s health at risk because of illegal drugs, there is no time to waste in mounting a serious campaign against them.

The choice of Walters is an embodiment of policies that have failed. They are mistakes we can’t afford to repeat.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.