U.S. Drug Czar on the 'War on Drugs' and Race America's prisons are bursting at the seams with drug offenders. But the so-called "war on drugs" appears to have had little effect on the price and availability of illicit substances. Though drug use among whites is on par with blacks, African Americans account for nearly 60 percent of all U.S. drug convictions. For a closer look at what needs to be done to fight a fair and effective "war on drugs," Ed Gordon speaks with John Walters, director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy -- the nation's "drug czar.'

U.S. Drug Czar on the 'War on Drugs' and Race

U.S. Drug Czar on the 'War on Drugs' and Race

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America's prisons are bursting at the seams with drug offenders. But the so-called "war on drugs" appears to have had little effect on the price and availability of illicit substances. Though drug use among whites is on par with blacks, African Americans account for nearly 60 percent of all U.S. drug convictions. For a closer look at what needs to be done to fight a fair and effective "war on drugs," Ed Gordon speaks with John Walters, director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy — the nation's "drug czar.'

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

America's prisons are bursting at the seams with drug offenders, but the drug war as we know it appears to have had little impact and effect on the price and availability of many illicit substances. What is being done, according to drug czar John Walters, is emphasis on pursuit of the user and minor dealers over big-time drug traffickers. The drug war has also unduly impacted communities of color. African-Americans account for nearly 60 percent of all drug convictions in this country. We're joined now in our Washington, DC, studios by John Walters, director of the National Office on Drug Control Policy.

Thank you very much for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, National Office on Drug Control Policy): Sure. Good to be here.

GORDON: Let me ask you what I found most interesting. You recently--recently being February--spoke with a--at a congressional hearing discussing the 2006 budget. And one of the things that you talked about is what we have seen heretofore as what I mentioned there in the introduction. A lot of people believe that the emphasis really has been cleaning up the street dealer, the occasional or recreational user who drives through and looks for those drugs, and not going after the big picture. Why did you decide to make that the emphasis?

Mr. WALTERS: Well, I don't think that's the emphasis. I think there--look, there's a lot of misunderstanding and there's also people, I think, who just simply--you know, for not their own fault, but are not abreast of what we're trying. What happens is what we did within the Bush administration is say, `What we need to do is have a balanced strategy. We need to reduce supply and demand. It is a market phenomenon.' The president's first initiative was to ask for more treatment money, $200 million. We got the first hundred million of which to close the gap between those who seek treatment and don't get it. We're now deploying that in states and focusing in some states on drug treatment courts...

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WALTERS: ...where they have needs because people come into the criminal justice system instead of sending them to jail, using the supervision of the court to stop the cycle of self-destruction and violence. We're supporting expansion of drug treatment in the court system.

We're also working on major suppliers, on the supply side. We're looking at this as a business. We're working in--for the first time, created a consolidated list of major organizational leaders globally and are going after those from all enforcement. We're working with those outside our country in Mexico and Colombia at a scale never before seen. And on the supply side--or on the demand side, we're also trying to use intervention early. We're trying to use it in the health system, where people can be screened for substances before they get into trouble, into crime.

And secondly, we're trying to do a better job of prevention, and I think that we've held ourselves accountable here by setting real goals. We've had a 17-percent decline in teen-age drug use over the last three years, exceeding the president's goal of a 10-percent reduction in two years and on the path for 25-percent reduction in five years, as he set as a goal, declines we hadn't seen in a decade.

So again, this isn't about locking up low-level offenders. In fact, I think the reality of the criminal justice system--with 1,600 drug treatment courts, 400 more in the last year--is to use the criminal justice system for low-level offenders. Unfortunately, if we don't do that, we end up with people who get themselves into more and more self-destructive behavior.

GORDON: What do you say to the person who says that, in fact, the other end needs to be the emphasis; the idea that if this country really wanted to lock down its borders, if this country really wanted to stop the infrastructure that we know and stop drug trafficking, we could; we don't, because there's just, quite frankly, too much money involved?

Mr. WALTERS: Well, I think it is hard. I don't think it's because of any kind of sense of corruption there. The fact is there are a lot of dollars that, you know, pursue drugs. Why? Because the market essentially, if you understand what's going on here, is--you know, people that say `Don't worry about the drug problem' think it's like 25- or 26-year-olds who are making maybe stupid decisions about their recreational time, but it's their business; they're adults. But the reality--I think it's people who--especially people who have suffered from this in their family--is this is about exposing our children during adolescence to dangerous addictive substances. If you don't get exposed during that time, you're unlikely to go on and use once you reach age 20. And the younger you get exposed, the more likely you are to have a problem, not only in adolescence, but later.

And the big-market buyer is the addict. They consume--20 percent of the users--are some of the crude estimates--consume 80 percent of the drugs. It's like any other addictive substance. So this is about making money off addiction, and the people who are addicted will go to extreme measures, as we have had painful experience with, to secure the drugs. So the dollars here that pursue it are kind of desperate dollars. So that's why we need to expand treatment to pull that demand away from--and the dollars away from those who would continue to supply it. And I think here the supply efforts that we've seen are important. Again, we want them to go further. We want to strengthen them. We think in this environment, we have been more successful than we have been before, largely through cooperation and intelligence and going after the vulnerabilities across.

Again, Colombia has eradicated a third of the coca crop; they're the major producer. There's been a net reduction in the hemisphere. We've seized 400 metric tons of cocaine worldwide in the last year, a historic amount. We're not talking about trivial amounts. This is through better and more aggressive action. We're working to strengthen our border. I was just on the southwest border last week with officials there and meeting with officials in Mexico. Again, we need to do a better job. The problem with the border and some other areas is, of course, that we insist on allowing the free flow of trade and people; that's part of our freedom. And the problem is what is drugs? Drugs is a way of taking away our freedom, that plays on our freedom as a complication in addressing it. We're not growing to throw out the blessings in order to stop the danger here, but we think we can effectively address the danger. When we push back, this problem gets smaller.

GORDON: Yet we've seen poppy production in Afghanistan more than triple over the course of a year, from 2003 to 2004. We've seen a burgeoning methamphetamine rise in this country, use and dealers involvement. Is it a war, quite frankly, with the moneys that you are trying to appropriate for '06 that you believe you'll be able to put a fair dent in?

Mr. WALTERS: Yeah. And, look, I think we have to conceive of this sensibly. This isn't--the phrase `war' came from trying to say, `We need to raise this as a priority' in the days when crack was destroying many of our neighborhoods, and say, `We have to make this a priority like we do when we have a foreign threat. We need to focus on this with the resources and the dedication and the unity that we need.' That's still needed. But it's not a war in the sense of we fight three battles and we either win or lose. This is like taking care of public health, this is like taking care of education, this is taking care of our safety. It's part of what civilized societies do to be civilized and to pass on those blessings to their children.

So, one, adolescent drug use is down; that's good. If we reduce the number of our children exposed to drugs, I repeat, we change the face of substance abuse for generations to come in a durable and lasting way. The same--and on the issue of meth, yes, meth has grown, but last year for the first time, we had reductions in the number of meth labs seized. We're seeing some progress in reducing meth consumption in those states. We need to go further. But again--here again, we began to push back, and this got smaller.

In Afghanistan, we do have a problem with poppy. That's not the heroin that's coming here, but we are worried because of the security of Afghanistan. And, of course, it is a world market; it could come here. But I'll point out I served in this--my office in the White House during President Bush's father administration. We couldn't do anything about world opium because it was in countries in Asia we had no ability to work with. This will not be easy, but I was in Afghanistan last month. The government there understands that the future of democracy requires them to deal with this problem, and for the first time in history, we have a chance to change the face of world heroin and opium consumption which will save millions of lives.

So again, we have to have reasonable expectations of movement in time, but we also have to have--not succumb to unreasonable cynicism that, you know, we are--when we make progress we don't make progress, and that when we push back, we can't make a difference.

GORDON: Let me ask you this as relates to the African-American community. And it's a strange question based on the fact that ofttimes the people you're talking about, quite frankly, are not doing the right thing. But it is very clear that disproportionately, the African-American community is, A, besieged by the problems of not necessarily drug use but drug dealing. Sixty percent, as we said, of all convicted drug dealers or drug convictions, I should note, are of African-Americans; 38 percent of all drug arrests are of African-Americans. There are those who will say it is a simple target, an easy target, to go after the black community as relates to this. What do you say to that?

Mr. WALTERS: Well, I think that we have to take it in its reality. I've met with many citizens in the African-American community. They want what everybody wants in the suburbs. They don't want their kids to walk to school past open-air drug markets. They don't want generation after generation of young African-American males sucked into drug use, drug dealing and prison. And I think that's what every American wants for their child. They have felt that they don't get the public safety; there's too much of this that continues in their neighborhood.

What we're working in--and we're working in the major cities, my office are now, around the country--Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Miami--and we've been working with city government there to make sure that the resources that we're applying are applied where the problem is so that we look and we map what's happening here. So maybe communities that don't have the biggest political voice sometimes in these communities receive the attention because the federal programs ask that that happen, and we're trying to work in partnership here.

Again, I think the beginning point is to protect young people from going down the path, to get those who are involved with crime because of their addiction treatment. And I think the good news in law enforcement is the enormous move toward using treatment courts to resolve problems.

GORDON: And what of those who don't use, those who deal? What alternatives can you give them, frankly? Ofttimes, they see that as their best way out of poverty, of poverty.

Mr. WALTERS: Yeah, Yeah. I think, one--first of all, I think there is the frank education. I've gone, walked through neighborhoods with Congressman Elijah Cummings in Baltimore. The frank answer is it's wrong to make money off your brothers and sisters by selling them addiction, and that's unacceptable; that's not a way out. But we have to work on education. We obviously want to continue to give people a sense of opportunity. We obviously want to make sure that we're protecting kids in times when they can be led to after-school or unsupervised activities that get them into trouble.

But I see the effort to have outreach. We're financing community coalitions that bring together the community, and we focus many times on young people because we know that they're the ones that have to be put on the right track and protected from the harm here. So I think there are progress. It's community by community. We have to be making sustained and real and aggressive progress, but we also have to be willing to see that if things are going to get better, we need people to stick out a hand and say, `How can I help?'

GORDON: Certainly not an easy fight.

John Walters, director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy, thank you for your time today. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. WALTERS: Thank you for the interest.

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