March 2001

HEADLINE: Wanted drug czar: here's what it takes; Forum; Brief Article

BYLINE: Bovard, James

Forget the privilege of stocking the Supreme Court. One of the new president's most important duties is choosing the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Presidents have filled the position with former governors, big-city police chiefs and gung ho ex-military. What traits are needed for success? George W. Bush may have replaced Barry McCaffrey, the most recent czar, by the time you read this. But based on the men who have filled the post in the past, here are a few qualifications that seem important for the job.

* A good drug czar must have the skill of a carnival hustler to divert attention from obvious failures. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, notes: "Most drug warriors don't try too hard to define success or failure in the drug war. Better to keep one's options open. If drug seizures are up, pile 'em up and call a press conference. If drug production in Bolivia or Peru is down, declare victory (and forget that production is soaring in Colombia). If drug arrests are up, that must be good--after all, the law is the law. If they're down, that must be good, too. Maybe fewer people are using drugs, or maybe not." A good drug czar knows how to exploit America's short attention span.

By way of example, last year Barry McCaffrey proclaimed, "For those who say this is a war, we are winning." He boasted that youth drug use had dropped 13 percent from the previous year, that cocaine use was down and that teenagers in increasing numbers disparage marijuana. As the Drug Policy Foundation pointed out, those figures ignored an interim rise: "Youth drug use dropped last year, but it is at roughly the same level as in 1996, when McCaffrey became the nation's drug control director." A seasoned czar knows that it's always best to look on the bright side, whatever the numbers. Last year, the czar's propaganda wing, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, boasted that its regular survey of high school students found marijuana use had fallen--although the margin was only one percent, less than the survey's 1.5 percent margin of error. Use has fallen more significantly since 1997, but only while the popularity of ecstasy and inhalants has skyrocketed. Overall, teen drug use in the past year remained stable--not much of a "success" unless you spin the numbers.

* The drug czar must be able to define his terms. This ability allows him to bray about achieving a drug-free society (except for Ritalin, Prozac, Valium and a few thousand other government-approved mood enhancers) within five years, or 10 years, or however long the most recent focus groups indicate people will accept.

* A drug czar must be able to spend money with a clear conscience or no conscience at all. Consider this choice: To reduce cocaine consumption by one percent, the government could spend $34 million on drug treatment programs or $783 million on eradicating the drug at its source. But a Cobra gunship makes for a better photo op than a heroin addict getting help does. It isn't necessary to justify the expense of interdiction with old arguments about supply and demand. After 20 years of all-out war, drugs today are cheaper than they were in 1981. Coke now sells for $45 a gram. High school students say it is easier to buy marijuana than beer. One is prohibited, the other is legal but regulated.

* The drug czar must have remarkable focus, keeping his eye on an unattainable prize, while passing over negative data. He must be able to ignore the reports of innocent people killed in drug raids. And he must be able to turn a statistic into propaganda. Drug deaths have doubled since 1979, to almost 16,000 a year. But that proves that drugs are dangerous, not that prohibition has been a failure. (Drugs are purer and more unpredictable than ever.) As for people who got HIV because the government outlawed needle-exchange programs, hey, they chose to use dirty needles.

* A drug czar should be a skilled dialectician. He must prove, within a five-second television soundbite, that anyone who criticizes the drug war wouldn't mind seeing all 12-year-olds become heroin addicts.

* A drug czar must be able to silence and demonize critics. An estimated 77 million Americans have tried drugs. The drug war costs taxpayers about $40 billion annually for prisons and jails. It has led to the incarceration of almost 500,000 citizens on nonviolent drug charges. Many of those convicted of felonies lose forever their right to vote. A good drug czar will simply ignore those who do vote, as in state referenda legalizing medical marijuana, labeling them dupes of outside agitators.

* The drug czar must be a great communicator, or at least know how to delegate that authority. The drug czar must see that his truth triumphs--with the help of a billion-dollar budget to bankroll hysterical ads and bribe television producers to covertly include government-approved antidrug messages in their programs.

* The drug czar must be a credible authority figure capable of appealing to those citizens who believe their government is always right. He must be able to preach that law and order are the most important things in the country--regardless of how unjust the law or oppressive the order. Any applicant for the job must be thoroughly vetted to see if they are fatally tainted by even trace elements of intellectual scruples or compassion. Medical marijuana is against the law; let the sick suffer.

Ideally, the next drug czar will not be a former police officer, military commander or politician, but a public health expert. That's the call being made by a coalition that includes the American Public Health Association, Common Sense for Drug Policy, the National Black Police Association--and the United Methodist Church, of which President Bush is a member.