WASHINGTON--The high esteem in which former Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas is held by his colleagues was demonstrated by the 98-1 Senate vote confirming him last month as the new director of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Even more telling was the fact that Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and an ardent opponent of the impeachment of President Clinton, appeared at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to praise Hutchinson, who had been one of the Republican House managers presenting the case against Clinton to the full Senate.
In his 4 1/2 years in the House, Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney, earned an estimable reputation as a thoughtful conservative and, as liberals like Conyers and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont affirmed, as a fair-minded advocate.
Hutchinson will need all his skills in his new job, for the nation is clearly about to embark on a long-overdue debate on the so-called "war on drugs." The DEA is, as the name implies, primarily a law-enforcement agency, but John Walters, Bush's choice to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been in limbo, awaiting a confirmation hearing since May. Many of the same Democrats who welcomed Hutchinson's nomination have argued that Walters' hard-line approach, emphasizing interdiction and incarceration over education and treatment, makes him the wrong choice for "drug czar." At least until Walters' fate is resolved, Hutchinson is in the hot seat on Bush administration policy toward drugs.
During the last three decades, the United States has invested billions in fighting the scourge of drugs, and more and more serious people are questioning its effectiveness. The critics range from conservatives like Bill Buckley and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to an array of liberals, and they are having an impact on public opinion. While few agree with the editors of the influential British newspaper, The Economist, which last month laid out at length "the case for legalizing drugs," many more are expressing their doubts about current policies.
A Pew Research Center survey last February found that three out of four Americans believe "we are losing the drug war," and by a margin of 52 percent to 35 percent they said drug use "should be treated as a disease, not a crime."
In a recent issue of the American Prospect magazine, California journalist Peter Schrag pointed to the growing trend in the states, where initiatives allowing medical use of marijuana or mandating treatment rather than jail for drug-users have been winning large public majorities.
Hutchinson was dodgy in his confirmation hearing on the question of sending federal agents out to arrest doctors who prescribe marijuana as a pain- and nausea-relieving agent for cancer patients and other seriously ill people, as eight states now allow. The Supreme Court held earlier this year that the feds have that authority. When Hutchinson was asked if he would use it, he said it was something on which he needed to confer with the attorney general, adding that it was important "that we do not send the wrong signal ... that marijuana use is an acceptable practice."
But Hutchinson also applauded a bipartisan bill, crafted by Leahy and the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, to expand funding of drug treatment programs, especially for prisoners and youths, and to increase the number of drug courts, where judges can order nonviolent drug offenders to undergo treatment and continuing tests, rather than put them in jail.
Hutchinson took over his DEA duties last week at the same time the Department of Justice bragged that more people than ever are in federal prison on drug charges and are serving longer sentences. That report showed there were more suspects arrested in 1999 on charges involving marijuana than for powder or crack cocaine. A higher portion of the marijuana suspects who wound up in federal prison were simply users than was the case with any of the hard drugs.
That raises obvious questions about the priorities of federal drug enforcement agents and prosecutors. No one seems to know how many people are in state prisons for simple possession of marijuana. But in 1998, those prisons held 236,800 people convicted on drug charges--57 percent more than had been there in 1990.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimated in 1998 that 70 percent to 85 percent of all state prison inmates--not just those convicted on drug charges--need treatment, but only 13 percent of them get it.
The whole "war on drugs" cries out for re-examination.
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