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Drug War's Next Czar

A. M. Rosenthal
New York Daily News

January 12, 2001

On the day of his Inauguration, George W. Bush can carry out one legal duty that will show what presidential compassion in government can mean for Americans. It means using power, persuasion and passion to save more American lives than have been lost in wars, increasing the safety, health and spiritual growth of American children and the protection of the bouquet of cultures that make up American society.

Mr. Bush can use the first day of his administration to appoint its leader of the war against narcotics - a mandated legal step and one of great political and social significance. He can give his judgment that this man or woman has the knowledge and sophistication to develop and lead the strategy and tactics of the struggle. This American will also need the strength to take the insults and unceasing pressure of the enemies of the drug war at home and abroad, as did Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who resigned with the change in administrations.

Maybe the president could twist the arm of the first drug czar until he comes back and serves longer -Bill Bennett. And on Inauguration Day he can take another step. He can promise the world he will consider himself the commander in chief of the American role against heroin, cocaine, marijuana and manufactured drugs and that he will never abandon his sense of responsibility toward emancipation from them. He will be laying the foundation of his heritage on his first day in office.

I have no wild confidence he will do all this on Inauguration day. Neither he nor his opponent talked much about drugs during the campaign because too many voters prefer to hear candidates talk about merrier things like more taxes and schools. But even if not precisely on Inauguration Day, if he does not move swiftly and strongly he will play a different and shameful kind of role - indirectly strengthening the relatively small but overly influential clique of Americans who belittle and befoul the advances made in fighting illegal drugs.

Using a well-financed and skillful propaganda machinery they keep spreading the message that the drug war has failed. They tell us the supply, mostly provided by Latin American and Asian killer-gangs, cannot be cut off. For years these Americans have been saying their goal is legalization - but now say it rarely in print.

They know the public would not buy that. So with money from some really rich billionaires, they use innocuous labels like "reform" and present referenda disguising narcotics as necessary for treating sick folk. The truth is that narcotics are already available when necessary, but with strict medical regulations, not the fuzzy rules that lead to legal drug clubs and drug parties.

This is a sly crawl to legalization. But for shameful reasons - a glitzy social network, a press that is mushy about drugs, the chic influence of a handful of prominent writers and academics - the government anti-drug drive has failed to do real combat with the pro-druggy lobby. It has not directed the disgust of society against them, particularly against those who finance the war against the drug war. Even using the phrase "drug war" causes officials and journalists to sneer. Anti-drug Americans outnumber and organizations outnumber the legalizers, open or concealed, by about 10-to-1.

But you would never guess that by the press coverage anti-drug organizations like National Families in Action don't receive despite the enormously valuable information they distribute, or maybe because of it.

The politically correct and socially vile propaganda against fighting drugs has persuaded some normally sensible people to believe the war is being steadily lost. That is a lie; since the mid-'80s the monthly use of illegal narcotics has dropped 42 percent. Most anti-drug people and organizations fully understand the importance of therapy in fighting narcotics. Government and anti-drug private donors provide therapy with money. Legalizers provide their mouths.

They pretend that prisons are stuffed with Americans imprisoned for a puff of pot. But Gen. McCaffrey said in The Washington Times that in fiscal 1998 only 33 federal defendants were in for offenses involving less than 5,000 grams of marijuana and only 55 for crimes involving 25 grams of cocaine or less. More than 70 percent of 221,000 state inmates were in for trafficking in drugs, not just possessing them. Eighty-two percent returned to cells with records of earlier crime.

So be sorry for some but don't break up emotionally over all the prisoners. Save some tears for newborn infants infected in the womb - visit pediatric AIDS wards - or for victims of violent crimes committed by addicts before the cell doors closed.

There is no one way to deal with addiction and the drug wars but a combination of ways, each critical: more money and beds for long-term therapy, international eradication of drugs everywhere they are grown or made, and law enforcement. Anti-drug warriors know there is no easy road; all three are essential.

The president-elect and his predecessor have not been leaders in the drug war. But he can become one if it is in him - on Inauguration Day or soon after, soon, soon - not out of panic in losing the war, but joy and honor in winning it.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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