WASHINGTON – President Bush chose John P. Walters, a get-tough figure from the drug wars of his father's presidency, to lead a renewed narcotics battle that he promised would be sensitive to the "human tragedy" of drug addiction.
Bush's announcement Thursday drew immediate objections from several groups who contended Walters cares little about drug treatment and will return to lock-'em-up policies of the 1980s.
And that, in turn, annoyed Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who said Bush fully intends "a total frontal assault against drug abuse" through a combination of rehabilitation, education and interdiction.
"I'd tell those cynics out there, look at what the president has been trying to do. Listen to what's said. And just get out of our way if you're going to be a cynic, and let us do our job," Thompson said.
Bush announced his selection of Walters as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy during a Rose Garden ceremony, and said he would keep the post Cabinet-level. In a tacit rebuke of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, the president said too little had been done lately to curb the drug use that had been declining among high school students in the 1980s and early 1990s.
"We had made tremendous strides in cutting drug use. This cannot be said today," Bush said. "We must do, and will do, a better job."
Walters pledged to protect children, help drug addicts and "shield our communities from the terrible human toll taken by illegal drugs."
Advocacy groups were deeply suspicious. They noted that the drug policy office oversees more than $19 billion in anti-drug programs, working with dozens of agencies, while Bush's budget proposal for fiscal 2002 seeks $1.6 billion for treatment programs.
"Everything about John Walters' past record suggests that he believes drug policy has nothing to do with science or public health. It's all about punishing people for their sins," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a New York-based drug policy research institute.
Walters was the drug policy office's deputy director for supply reduction when it was headed by William Bennett during the administration of former President Bush.
Walters has stressed the importance of criminal penalties for drug users and opposed the use of marijuana for medical purposes. He also has favored the drug certification program, in which nations are judged by their anti-drug efforts, a sore point in U.S.-Mexican relations.
Walters is president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a national donors group. He co-authored a book with Bennett and John DiIulio Jr., "Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs."
Bill Zimmerman, director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, called Walters' appointment "a thumb in the eye" to voters in 17 states who, over the past year, favored issues ranging from medical use of marijuana to using seized drug proceeds for drug treatment, rather than law enforcement.
Bush defended Walters during a visit later Thursday to an anti-drug community program in a Washington suburb, saying he "understands the need to reduce demand" through treatment.
"The most effective way to reduce the supply of drugs in America is to reduce the demand for drugs in America," Bush said. "Therefore, this administration will focus unprecedented attention on the demand side of this problem."
Besides Walters, Bush announced a series of Cabinet reviews to determine the effectiveness of current federal anti-drug efforts. He categorically rejected the idea of legalizing drugs as "a social catastrophe" that would undermine efforts to teach children that drug use is wrong.
Also, the White House revealed that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were among 650 new White House employees who took required drug tests in January. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said 127 White House staffers have been randomly tested since the initial round of examinations, "and there are no problems that have been brought to anybody's attention."
Bush directed DiIulio, who heads the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives, to review existing federal partnerships with local organizations that do anti-drug work. He asked Thompson to do a state-by-state evaluation of current treatment needs, and Attorney General John Ashcroft to look into making prisons drug-free, including expanded drug testing of those on parole or probation.
Nadelmann said he anticipates that Bush would take some sort of moderate action to counteract opposition to Walters, such as proposing changes to mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Fleischer told reporters Thursday that mandatory minimum sentences would be an aspect of Ashcroft's review.