Drug Czar Nominee Rebuffs Criticisms

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The president's nominee to be the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has clarified his positions on a number of statements he previously made regarding the role of treatment and education in the war on drugs. Opponents to his nomination seem pleased but remain cautious.

John Walters served as deputy director for supply reduction, and as chief of staff at ONDCP under former drug czar William Bennett. He was with ONDCP from the agency's creation in 1989 throughout the first Bush administration. Prior to that, he was Secretary Bennett's assistant at the Department of Education.

But criticism of Walters doesn't stem from his job performance. Drug use declined every year during his tenure with ONDCP and was cut in half over the entire period. Democrats criticize the nominee instead for his past comments about the priority law enforcement and interdiction should have over education and treatment.

For example, Walters wrote in The Weekly Standard in March 2001 that, "What really drives the battle against law enforcement and punishment is not a commitment to treatment, but the widely held view that, first, we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs; second, drug and other criminal sentences are too long and harsh, and third, the criminal justice system is unjustly punishing young black men. These are among the great urban myths of our time."

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who wrote the law that created ONDCP, calls Walters a "principled man" but questions those views.

"These statements are certainly not in line with my drug policy views," Biden said at a confirmation hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Youth Violence Wednesday.

Walters now says mandatory minimum sentences probably should be reexamined. But he warns that changes must be carefully weighed.

"I would not want a change in the law to be one that either went as far as to normalize the drug trade as an acceptable activity," he said, "or to send a signal that there was a consensus that drug trafficking in serious addictive substances is not a serious concern of national legal and political authorities."

But Walters' comments on federalism more directly contradict Biden's expressed liberal political philosophy.

The nominee wrote in a commentary entitled "Big Government Junkies" for the March-April 1996 issue of Policy Review that said, "teaching children that drug use is wrong and harmful is primarily the responsibility of parents and local communities, youth organizations, religious institutions, schools and police.

"Federal funding is neither necessary nor sufficient for conveying this lesson by word and deed," Walters wrote.

He went on to question the effectiveness of a program that provides less than $3.00 per pupil after federal funding of $7.25 per student winds its way through the various federal and state bureaucracies to get to schools at the local level.

Walters says his quarrel was with politicians who seem to believe that the federal government can replace parents when it comes to modeling good behavior for children.

But much of the criticism of Walters appears to stem from comments that have apparently been taken out of context.

For example, during the hearing Biden said, "He (Walters) has written that the 'view that therapy by a team of counselors, physicians and specialists is the only effective way to reduce drug use' is a 'myth.'"

Biden went on to use that quote to argue that Walters is at odds with modern science.

"In contrast, the top doctors and scientists in the field of addiction believe that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease and that addiction treatment is as successful as treatment for other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma," Biden stated.

But Walters' statement indicates that he does not believe medical or psychological treatment is the only effective method, not that he questions the effectiveness of, or need for such treatment. While at ONDCP, Walters lobbied for a 98 percent increase in treatment funding. But he also sought freedom to fund a variety of types of programs.

"We need to be careful that we don't fall into the nationalizing trap of 'one size fits all,'" Walters said. "I believe when you have a problem, try to find somebody who's solving that problem well and see what lessons you can learn from them."

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) shot back at one of the most vocal opponents of Walters' nomination outside the Congress, the Coalition for Compassionate Leadership on Drug Policy (CCLDP).

The organization has published a 26-page report detailing Walters' statements on the treatment, education, interdiction, and enforcement components of the nation's drug strategy, and criticizing his nomination.

"I just have a caution of three words: Follow the money," Kyl warned. "The CCLDP's website is registered to the Soros Foundation in New York. The Soros Foundation was founded by multibillionaire George Soros, whose major interest is to advance the legalization of drugs."

Soros has provided money to efforts to legalize marijuana in several states, and has also funded efforts to legalize heroine and cocaine, according to Kyl. An Internet search found that most of the criticisms voiced against Walters during the hearing were contained in the CCLDP report delivered to members of the committee.

During a May 10, 2001, Rose Garden ceremony to announce Walters' nomination, President Bush said, "the most effective way to reduce the supply of drugs in America is to reduce the demand for drugs in America. Therefore, this administration will focus unprecedented attention on the demand side of this problem."

Bush went on to detail $1.6 billion in new spending over the next five years dedicated to treatment and additional education initiatives. In Wednesday's hearing, Walters referenced Bush's comments to respond to his critics, saying he would not have accepted the nomination if he did not agree with the president.

"I believe the president's statements and proposals are consistent with what needs to be done in this country," he said. "So I have no reservation, and am eager to help in any way I can in carrying out those policies."