Despite the fact that Americans are increasingly supporting alternatives to the war on drugs, President Bush today appointed a drug czar likely to rely more heavily than his predecessors on policies proven to be ineffective.
Critics note that decades of "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 stands for the proposition that drug policy has nothing to do with facts, science or public health," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, the nation's leading drug policy reform organization. "It's all about punishment to him."
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.
Walters even goes so far as to call basic drug war facts "urban myths." In a recent Weekly Standard op-ed, Walters told readers what he considered to be the three greatest urban myths of our time: (1) that we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs; (2) that drug sentences are too long and too harsh; and (3) that the criminal justice system is unjustly punishing young black men. Each of these, in fact, is demonstrably true.
Even a cursory glance at the facts proves that Walters is at odds with the truth:
- Of the 1,559,100 arrests for drug law violations in 1998, 78.8% were for possession of a controlled substance. In 1997, over 100,000 people were in state or federal prison for possession of an illegal drug. This does not even count those among the roughly two hundred thousand non-violent drug offenders in local jails.
- The average federal sentence for a drug offense in 1997 was 78 months, over twice the average sentence for manslaughter (30 months) and almost four times the average sentence for auto theft (20 months). Even possession of a handful of crack warrants five years in federal prison with no possibility of parole.
- Although whites and blacks use drugs at equal rates, black men are admitted to state prison for drug offenses at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men. In 15 states, black men are admitted to state prison for drug charges at a rate that is 20 to 57 times the white male rate.
While voters around the country 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.
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." McCaffrey also complained recently that Walters has voiced a concern "that there is too much treatment capacity in the United States, which I found shocking."
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."
Drug war critics are calling for three concrete reforms that would immediately reduce the harm of the war on drugs. They are:
- Reforming federal mandatory minimum sentences, which have eviscerated judicial discretion, filled our federal prisons with young, non-violent drug offenders, broken up families, and devastated black and Latino communities.
- Implementing and funding real treatment programs that offer help to substance abusers before they end up in the criminal justice system, not after. While the federal government spends 75 percent of its drug budget on prisons, police, and waging war in Latin America, over half of all Americans seeking treatment lack access.
- Repealing Rep. Souder's amendment to the Higher Education Act denying federal grants or school loans to any person ever convicted of a drug offense, even simple possession of marijuana. In America today, "youthful indiscretions" from the past are keeping thousands of low-income Americans from going to school and getting their life back together.