April 26, 2001
Drug Czar Candidate's
Record Out of Step with Public Health Professionals
Bush Pick Supports Jailing Marijuana Smokers, Peruvian Shoot-Downs; Criticizes Drug Treatment, Medical Marijuana
DC: Innocent citizens, seriously ill patients and minor marijuana offenders
are among those most likely to become caught in the crossfire of the war on
drugs under strategies endorsed by leading Drug Czar candidate John P. Walters,
who was named yesterday by The New York Times as Bush's top choice for
"The expected appointment of John P. Walters as the next Drug Czar is a serious mistake," warned NORML Executive Director R. Keith Stroup, Esq. "Instead of finding a 'compassionate conservative' to lead our anti-drug efforts, President Bush has selected a man whose views are regarded as harsh and extreme, even among drug warriors. Walter's views favoring incarceration over drug treatment and education runs contrary to the American public, 74 percent of whom now say that our current 'do drugs, do time' strategies are a miserable failure."
Walters, who served as Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under the previous Bush administration, is a staunch proponent of incarcerating drug offenders -- including recreational and medical marijuana users -- and has lobbied Congress to stiffen federal penalties for marijuana. He also opposes state laws that exempt medical marijuana patients from criminal penalties, despite the fact that 73 percent of the public support legalizing the drug for medical purposes, according to a March 2001 Pew Research Center poll.
In addition, Walters is a major proponent of militarizing the drug war, and is a longtime advocate of a controversial US/Peruvian program that shoot downs unarmed, civilian airplanes suspected of carrying drugs. Government officials abruptly suspended the program last week after the Peruvian air-force fired upon a plane carrying American missionaries in which a woman and her infant daughter were killed. U.S. and Peruvian officials mistakenly believed the plane was transporting cocaine.
In a 1996 background paper written for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, DC think-tank, Walters praised the program and urged Congress to expand the use of military force in drug interdiction. "Foreign programs are cheap and effective," he wrote. "An example: America's chronically underfunded program in Peru ... has managed to shoot down or disable 20 ... airplanes since March 1, 1995. ... [We] have an opportunity to save American lives by helping the Peruvians press their attacks on traffickers." He added: "The U.S. military cannot solve the drug problem, but it can make a profound contribution to cutting the flow of drugs through interdiction. The budget needs to reflect this national priority."
Walters is also a vocal proponent of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, a tactic opposed by the American Bar Association, Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist and Stephen Breyer, and recently criticized by President Bush who told CNN in January that "long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space or heal people from their disease." In 1996, Walters testified before Congress in opposition to recommendations made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would have removed the existing mandatory minimum criminal disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. In various editorials, Walters has repeatedly dismissed the notion that certain drug laws and drug law enforcement tactics disproportionately incarcerate minorities as one of "the greatest urban myths of our time." Walters has also argued that the Sentencing Commission "should be barred from proposing changes in criminal penalties in cases where Congress has established mandatory minimum sentences."
Although there are now more drug offenders serving time behind bars than the entire U.S. prison population of 1980, Walters rejects accusations that the drug war excessively targets and prosecutes drug users and minor offenders. "The idea that our prisons are filled with people whose only offense was possession of an illegal drug is utter fantasy," he wrote in a March op-ed for The Weekly Standard. However, according to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 25 percent of America's 2 million prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.
Walters remains one of the lone critics of expanding drug treatment strategies. While he supports "coerced treatment" and "faith-based treatment programs" for convicted drug offenders, he has called voluntary treatment ineffective - recently mocking the reoccurring drug problems of actor Robert Downey Jr. "It's hard to imagine a worse advertisement for the effectiveness of drug treatment than Robert Downey Jr.," he wrote. Recently, McCaffrey sharply criticized Walter's disregard for drug treatment in The New York Times. "Some of his positions in my own view need to be carefully considered by the confirmation committee," he said, referring to Walter's resistance to embrace treatment over incarceration.
"Walters is another white male from the conservative Washington, DC think-tank crowd who supports the 'shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later' approach to the drug war," Stroup summarized. "He is out of touch with the attitudes of the American public and an extraordinarily poor choice to serve as the nation's Drug Czar."
For more information, please contact Keith Stroup, Executive Director of NORML, at (202) 483-5500 or Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of The NORML Foundation, at (202) 483-8751.
- End -