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Published: Saturday, 5/12/2001

White House Watch: Get ready for more drug wars

WASHINGTON - The White House drug wars are heating up again. Woe is us.

Having scolded the previous administration for laxness in fighting the war on drugs - a tired cliche that means kids go to jail, missionaries' planes are shot out of the sky, politicians get quick-and-easy sound bites, and Hollywood has more movie fodder - the Bush administration is going back to the future.

When in doubt about how to get a handle on the scourge of drugs by reducing demand, the ready solution seems to be to get tougher by building more prisons and filling them up with addicts and small-time dealers, although the pitiful case of actor Robert Downey, Jr., shows that the threat of jail is not always the solution.

The truth is that presidents - Democrats and Republicans alike - are just like most people in that they don't really know how to confront the evil of drugs and are afraid to get too innovative. So they appoint “drug czars,” use military lingo, and give speeches to the effect that “this time we're really going to war against drugs.” Sometimes their wives try - for a few years - to persuade children to “just say no.”

Former President Clinton made the drug war a centerpiece of a couple of his stupendously long State of the Union speeches. That creativity and zest changed the illegal drug landscape - for about five minutes. One of Mr. Clinton's last acts in office was pardoning 48 drug offenders, including his brother. That was not a big deal because most were small-time users who got trapped in their addictions, but it didn't help that one pardonee was a kingpin in a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring.

President Bush cares so deeply about the scourge of drugs that he has named Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R., Ark.) - one of the men who led the House impeachment effort against Mr. Clinton - to head the Drug Enforcement Administration. This, coupled with Mr. Hutchinson's hard-line views on curbing illegal drug use, is not exactly a smart move to ensure broad bipartisan support of the DEA as a new round of anti-drug warfare starts.

At the same time, Mr. Bush also has named as his drug czar John Walters, a law-and-order conservative generally considered a bright star in the right-of-center firmament. His selection has prompted a rash of comments such as, “It generally looks like more of the same.”

The problem is that “the same” hasn't worked. Mr. Walters was the main author of Schools Without Drugs. Marijuana is now widely available in middle school.

The President's $1.95 trillion budget has $19 billion (up a whopping $1.1 billion) earmarked for all forms of federal drug control. Some of it will expand waiting-room-only treatment facilities but most of it will go, as usual, for interdiction - _shooting down planes, paying mercenaries' salaries, and burning crops in Latin America.

One of Mr. Bush's new initiatives, besides setting up a database for all the church-based programs that deal with drug users, is spending $5 million a year for five years on something called a Parent Drug Corps. That military thing again. It is to be hoped the worried parents trying to thwart their teens won't be wearing the Chinese-made black berets rejected by the U.S. Army.

Mr. Bush wants to spend $11 million more on community efforts to educate children about how bad drugs are for them. A poster for every empty storefront? Yet, the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program is widely deemed to be flawed. Instead of being wiser about such drugs as marijuana, many adolescents regard it as innocuous - another parental control issue.

Americans get their views on the anti-drug effort not from Washington but from Hollywood. The public doesn't so much believe the Clinton administration statistic that youth drug use declined 21 percent in its last two years as it believes the grim movie Traffic and The West Wing episode that portrayed the anti-drug war as a futile waste of money.

There are peaks and valleys in the never-ending effort to end the curse of drug addiction. The popularity of one drug ebbs, but another comes along. It seems to take a variety of costly tactics - from treatment to jail - to make a little progress. Putting society's stigma on drug use helps, too.

Mr. Bush has given Messrs. Hutchinson and Walters a chance to try their back-to-basics, lock-'em-away approach. As commander in chief of the war on drugs, Mr. Bush is banking that the nation has time, even if addicts don't, to see if the one-size-fits-all works.

If not, he'll talk about missile defense.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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