ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
All this week we've been focusing on what we've called the forgotten war, the war on drugs. Many people who are working to reduce drug abuse are concerned that the war on terror has pushed drug issues out of the news and out of public consciousness. The proposed federal budget would reduce spending on anti-drug programs for the first time in two decades.
As NPR's John Burnett reports, some critics of the current drug czar say that he is largely responsible for allowing the drug war to falter.
JOHN BURNETT: During the course of research for this series it became apparent that a lot of the prominent players in the war on drugs don't have many compliments for Drug Czar John Walters. The director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is a Michigan native, in his mid-50s, a former deputy director of supply reduction under an earlier drug czar. Though President Bush appointed Walters to be the public face of the war on drugs, some anti-drug activists say he's been the invisible man.
Mr. RON BROOKS (President, National Narcotics Officers' Association): The drug war has really faltered. It is taking a back seat to other issues under Drug Czar John Walters.
BURNETT: That was Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers' Association. He is angry that the drug czar's office recommended a sharp cut in funding for state narcotics task forces. General Barry McCaffrey, drug czar from 1996 to 2001, says bluntly, as far as he can tell, presently there is no federal drug policy.
General BARRY MCCAFFREY (Former Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): I don't think it's being adequately funded. I don't think Congress is paying attention to it. I don't think the news media are writing about it. I think the issue has disappeared off the public consciousness.
BURNETT: John Carnevale was a top budget official under four drug czars. He points out the drug czar's greatest strength is the bully pulpit - to influence the president, the Cabinet and the nation on the importance of fighting drugs.
Mr. JOHN CARNEVALE (Former Director Budget and Planning, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): This drug czar has spent all of his time hiding inside the building, not getting out and really getting on a soapbox and using that position to raise awareness of the issue. It's almost as if he's been hiding from the issue himself.
BURNETT: With these questions in mind, I repeatedly requested an interview with John Walters, and his spokesperson repeatedly declined. So I went to see the drug czar at a speech he was giving at the Washington Convention Center in February.
Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): It's a great pleasure for me to be here. I will apologize to those of you who are not from Washington for the weather...
BURNETT: Afterwards, I approached him in a carpeted hallway as he was heading to an elevator.
Mr. Walters? Hi, I'm John Burnett with National Public Radio.
Mr. WALTERS: Hey, how are you?
BURNETT: Can I ask you a few questions of what should we do...
Mr. WALTERS: We need to get in to the airport. I'm sorry, I can't do the interview right now. If you talk to my press people, we'll try to set something up.
BURNETT: I already have and they said you could - can I just walk with you and ask you a couple of question?
Mr. WALTERS: Give me about - I'd rather not do these on the fly, you know, I'm...
BURNETT: In his stead, Walters' office made available David Murray, a university professor and researcher who serves as the office's chief scientist. Murray was asked about the criticisms of his boss.
Mr. DAVID MURRAY (Senior Policy Analyst, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): My sense would be you're talking to the wrong people. You are talking to people who may have a partial, misclarified sense of what the office does.
BURNETT: Murray says that criticism comes with the territory, and his office's work is vindicated by results.
Mr. MURRAY: Not only have we things like record seizures and the (unintelligible) of cocaine well okay, fair enough, major reductions in heroin coming out of Colombia, okay fair enough. Cutting off methamphetamine, precursors chemicals coming in from Canada, steep drops in the number of methamphetamine laboratories all across America. That's success. That's material, palpable success. But a 23 percent reduction in youth drug use in five years? Golly, I wonder who was running things when that happened? Captain John Walters? Yes, Captain John Walters, out of this office.
BURNETT: John Walters spoke about the 23 percent reduction in teenage drug use in his speech to the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, the people fighting in the trenches of the drug war. I wanted to know if this trend, which is echoed in other national surveys, reflected their reality. In order are: Ernie Kirby, a high school drug counselor in Wasilla, Alaska; Brenda Armstrong, the alcohol and drug prevention coordinator of Santa Cruz County, California; and Reverend Tom Lantieri, head of a faith-based, anti-substance abuse coalition in Hartford County, Maryland.
Mr. ERNIE KIRBY (Drug Counselor, Wasilla, Alaska): In rural Alaska, we have a lot of problems with huffing, marijuana and meth. But I don't think the White House numbers are accurate, at least for the Alaskan area.
Ms. BRENDA ARMSTRONG (Coordinator, Alcohol and Drug prevention, Santa Cruz County, California): No, methamphetamine is definitely on the rise in our community. I think marijuana is on the rise. The other drugs have decreased, but not as substantially as 23 percent.
Reverend TOM LANTIERI: Myself, no - I haven't seen that. I see the drug of choice changing from alcohol to marijuana to - now prescription drugs seem to be the thing kids are getting their hands on, abusing painkillers.
BURNETT: Walters has also had rocky relations on Capitol Hill. Four members of Congress - all prominent drug warriors - have asked for the drug czar's resignation. Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa, says that Walters, even more than his predecessors, manipulates numbers to inflate the Bush administration's successes in drug policy.
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): When it comes to statistics, I think it's fair to say that they cook the books. They use whatever statistics best fit their public relations program.
BURNETT: The drug czar's office says that Grassley was badly briefed. Donny Marshall was administrator of the DEA from 1999 to 2001. He's heard the criticism of this drug czar, and he thinks it's misplaced.
Mr. DONNY MARSHALL (Former Administrator, Drug Enforcement Administration): Before I criticize John Walters too, too much, I would ask what kind of a priority is this for the White House themselves.
BURNETT: Of the more than 100 anti-drug professionals across America interviewed for this series - in overseas operations, domestic law enforcement, treatment and prevention - very few share the triumph list rhetoric of this drug czar: that we are winning the drug war. Moreover, what troubles people who've dedicated their lives to fighting drugs is our short memory.
Mr. ROBERT CHARLES (Former Assistant Secretary of State, International Narcotics and Law Enforcement): We've lulled ourselves into believing that we've either won the drug war or that somehow it really doesn't matter.
BURNETT: Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement. He points out that in 2004, the last year for which figures are available, nearly 31,000 Americans died from drug abuse. That's more than 10 times the number who died on September 11th.
Mr. CHARLES: My argument would be, while counterterrorism is very important, this one is one that is easily forgotten, and yet it is one that affects virtually every family in the United States in one way or another.
BURNETT: Narcotics abuse goes in cycles. It peaked in the early 1980s, then dropped after a concerted national campaign. It spiked again in the late 1990s, and now we're in another lull. Anti-drug activists say this is precisely the time not to back off. If there's anything 38 years of the drug war has taught us, it's that we forget it at our peril because drugs always come back.
John Burnett, NPR News.