With a Drug Czar like Walters, Who Needs Osama?

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Nothing enrages the zealots at the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) – especially Director John Walters – like a teenager who smokes marijuana and doesn’t suffer.

Unfortunately for Walters, teens who smoke pot moderately and don’t flunk out of school, disown their parents, become heroin junkies or overdose behind dumpsters comprise the vast majority of youthful drug users. Of the 95 million Americans who have tried marijuana, as estimated by the 2002 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly all initially tried it as adolescents, yet very few gatewayed into habitual hard drug use, addiction or even regular pot smoking.

Because most teenage marijuana users aren’t hurting themselves, ONDCP is obsessed with finding ways for the government to harm them – by arrest, school expulsion, college loan bans, needless addiction treatment, ads branding them as baby killers and terrorist accomplices … and now, forced drug testing.

ONDCP’s School Drug Testing Summit in Fresno, Calif., in March – where only advocates of student drug-testing were permitted to speak – conjured images of hordes of youths self-destructing on drugs. Ignored were federal reports that show low rates of teenage deaths, crime and hospital emergency treatments caused by illicit drug abuse.

In fact, the figures in these reports strongly support the argument that schools should leave students alone and test parents, teachers, administrators, coaches and other role models instead. A 40-year-old is three times as likely to suffer serious illegal-drug abuse problems as a 16-year-old, Drug Abuse Warning Network figures show.

But ONDCP has never cared about reality. The summit’s speakers freely admitted that testing wouldn’t catch users of hard drugs, because heroin, cocaine and speed metabolize too quickly for tests to detect, nor would it deter hardcore potheads, who drop out or devise ways to beat tests.

No, ONDCP’s prey is occasional teenage users of marijuana, residue of which remains detectable for weeks after its use. Why? Because these kids aren’t suffering. Monitoring the Future surveys find that youths who use only marijuana are very similar, academically and socially, to those who abstain. Dammit, we can’t even tell whether they use drugs at all unless we make them pee in a bottle.

When it comes to wrecking the lives of moderate drug users who aren’t suffering or causing problems, while letting hardcore junkies keep on shooting up, robbing, killing and dying, Walters is king.

The drug-war ideology that Walters perpetuates has inflicted unspeakable suffering on aging baby boomers. Today, 80 percent of the people who die or go to hospital emergency rooms because of illegal drug abuse are over age 35. The never-mentioned history of today’s middle-age drug crisis is ugly.

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration’s crackdown on marijuana use among Vietnam troops (producing thousands of arrests and dishonorable discharges) provoked a wholesale switch to heroin, which is easier to conceal, produces no smoke and is less detectable in tests.

Returning troops, four in 10 of whom used heroin in Vietnam, were discharged without treatment, reports University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy. They formed the core of escalating heroin, cocaine, speed, poly-drug, and drug/alcohol scourges in the 1980s and ’90s. Today’s drug abuse crises were not caused by young, casual marijuana smokers taking up harder drugs, but by aging hard drug abusers whose relapses stem from Vietnam-era stress.

During Walters’ first tenure at ONDCP, as deputy director from 1985 to 1992, he and drug czar William Bennett declared that stopping drug “use itself,” especially casual drug use, was ONDCP’s policy priority. Addicts? Let ’em suffer for their sins.

Their mean-spirited idiocy launched 20 years of drug-war calamity. While other Western countries contained drug problems with sensible social and health measures, America’s drug abuse skyrocketed. During Walters’ 1980s stint, drug-related hospital emergencies rose 30 percent, drug-related deaths jumped 53 percent, and drug-related murders soared 132 percent.

Because dogmatic deception and massive failure are key qualifications to be drug czar, Walters is back at ONDCP – and with him, more addiction and death.

Federal figures show that in 2002, drug-related deaths jumped to 22,300, and drug-related hospital emergency cases rose to 670,000, both of which are record peaks. America is suffering its worst drug crisis ever, with drug-related fatality rates three to 10 times higher those in Canada and Europe.

Unsatisfied with the damage his warped policies caused older generations, Walters now seeks to inflict more destruction on the next one.

Initial evaluations of modern school drug testing show history repeating itself. Monitoring the Future’s research team studied 900 schools over five years. Its updated October 2003 report found school drug testing to be worthless, with one troubling exception: Youth subjected to random drug testing reported a bit less casual marijuana use but significantly more use of other drugs.

If Congress continues allowing Walters to wreak ideological incompetence on drug policy, he may well create something we don’t have now: a genuine teenage drug crisis. Because more suffering is exactly what drug-war hardliners want.

Mike Males teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. mailto:http://home.earthlink.net/%7Emmales.