Despite the fact that Americans are increasingly supporting alternatives to the war on drugs, President Bush is expected to appoint a drug czar likely to rely more heavily than his predecessors on policies proven to be ineffective.
Critics note that decades of the "get tough" approaches supported by Walters have landed nearly 500,000 Americans behind bars, consumed tens of billions of tax dollars, and left illicit drugs cheaper, purer and more available than ever in the U.S.
Walters, who worked for former drug czar William Bennett in various posts, is seriously at odds with the growing national movement for more humane and effective drug strategies. He is being called the "John Ashcroft of drug policy" due to his extremist views.
While voters last November passed five major drug policy reform measures, including treatment over incarceration for non-violent offenders, Walters is likely to take the opposite approach by increasing interdiction and incarceration policies, and scaling back the government's already modest commitment to treatment. This could even put him at odds with President Bush, who has indicated a willingness to re-examine "mandatory minimum" drug sentences; the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity; and other drug laws with racially discriminatory effects.
As President Bush said on January 18, 2001 on CNN: "I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long minimum sentences for the first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease." He also said that disparities in sentencing "ought to be addressed by making sure the powder-cocaine and the crack-cocaine penalties are the same."
Walters has opposed re-examining such sentencing disparities and is a longtime proponent of mandatory minimums, which in states like New York allow nonviolent, first time offenders to receive a sentence of 15 years to life.
Even former drug czar Barry McCaffrey has expressed concern about Walters's priorities being heavily skewed toward law enforcement. On NBC's Meet the Press last weekend McCaffrey said Walters is "focused too much on interdiction" and "needs to educate himself on prevention and treatment."
"John Walters stands for the proposition that drug policy has nothing to do with science or public health. It's all about punishment," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, the nation's leading drug policy reform organization.
There are several key areas in which Walters is well outside the mainstream on drug policy. In recent years he has supported:
- Retaining the racially discriminatory disparity in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine;
- Incarcerating more people for marijuana, and maintaining criminal penalties for medical marijuana;
- Increasing the US role in providing counter-drug intelligence to foreign militaries -- such as the Peruvian airforce, which last Friday shot down an innocent US missionary plane.
Meanwhile voters around the country have voted in favor of drug policy reform in recent years, including eight medical marijuana state ballot initiatives since 1996, and last year's historic passage of California's Proposition 36 by a nearly two to one margin. Prop. 36 requires treatment instead of incarceration for a person's first two nonviolent drug offenses.
Reformers say the president would be wise to listen to these winds of change.
According to Nadelmann, "America needs a drug czar with the courage to lead a real debate about alternatives to the drug war -- someone who understands addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal issue. John Walters is about as far from that as anyone Mr. Bush could have chosen."