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The drug czar leaves behind a shaky legacy

Posted: Tuesday, December 12, 2000

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday:

Gen. Barry McCaffrey is wrapping up his nearly five-year tenure as the president's drug policy adviser with a bang. His parting shot this summer was to mastermind and successfully lobby Congress for approval of a $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia, most of it for weapons to fight guerrillas involved in the drug trade.

Now there is, belatedly, some recognition in Congress that Plan Colombia has potential for disaster. There is second-guessing about pouring money into the Colombian military, which has been linked to human-rights abuses. There is recognition that a military response in Colombia will push the drug trade to neighboring nations and destabilize them.

Plan Colombia is emblematic of McCaffrey's guns-and-bullets approach to illicit drugs, even though it's a tactic that has not made much headway at home and is not likely to fare any better in Colombia.

What the U.S. needs instead are innovative strategies based on science and medicine, rather than politics and military might. That's what the next president ought to expect from McCaffrey's successor.

McCaffrey, to his credit, has talked up the importance of treatment and other demand-reduction strategies.

But his proposed $19.5 billion budget for 2001 continues to pump twice as much money into law enforcement and interdiction as into treatment and prevention.

During his tenure McCaffrey has fought even relatively modest changes in drug policies with an inquisitorial zeal science and facts be damned.

A 1998 study by the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed what many other scientists had already established: Needle-exchange programs effectively limit transmission of the AIDS virus among intravenous drug users, their partners and their babies, with little risk of increased drug use.

Yet McCaffrey successfully led the charge against federal funding of needle exchanges.

Likewise, he has battled against state initiatives to allow medicinal uses of marijuana, again disregarding scientific studies and public opinion.

McCaffrey's most cavalier disregard for the facts came when he traveled to Europe in 1998, supposedly on a "fact-finding" tour of countries with liberalized drug policies. When he returned, he blasted the Netherlands as a nest of crime fueled by illegal drugs a diatribe that had no basis in fact. Yet the nation's drug czar offered no retraction.

McCaffrey will leave his post Jan. 6. It will be important for his successor to recognize that, yes, drug addiction is a serious problem. But the nation needs to combat it with science, common sense and compassion, not with empty rhetoric or the failed policies of the past.



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