Drug Czar

John P. Walters

Photo by D. Brian Burghart

John P. Walters was in Reno last week to support local law enforcement in the campaign against Nevada’s Question 9, a constitutional amendment to legalize the possession of up to three ounces of marijuana for people 21 and older. Walters is Director of National Drug Control Policy, President George W. Bush’s Drug Czar, the grand commander of America’s War on Drugs. Before the press conference he took a moment for a one-on-one interview with the RN&R. While we ran an excepted interview in the newspaper, Walters can pack a lot of words into a four-minute interview, so here’s the unabridged interview.

What does the Drug Czar do?

The office serves to organize policy and federal budgets for the President and for presentation to the Congress. Most of what the federal government does in the area of drug control is provide resources to state and local people who do treatment, prevention and law enforcement. We, obviously, have federal law enforcement and the Veteran’s Administration system of hospitals is actually the largest single treatment provider in the country. Most of what we do with the federal budget is a partnership, as it is in other areas. It wasn’t feasible to create a Department of Drug Control, because so many of the things that have to be done—education, health policy, law enforcement, national security policy—couldn’t be pulled into one department. The problem was, how do we coordinate a good balance of resources and policy across multiple departments?

How does the office help to design policy for the White House?

First we gather the information that we have, both from federal sources and nonfederal sources. We do a lot of research at the federal level, research on health policy, treatment effectiveness, the biochemistry of drug abuse and drug addiction. We collect information about the drug trade and the market. We do research about the effectiveness of prevention programs, and how to design better, more effective and far-reaching programs for young people, people in the workplace, for people who come in to see physicians and others. We take the information that we have about the current character of the problem and the best research available, and we try to both examine and define policies that we have and then build budgets behind those policies—to put resources where there is a need that may emerge or may not be met, and make programs as effective as we can.

Has the War on Drugs taken a back seat to the War on Terrorism?

No. People were worried initially that resources were going to be shifted, but in fact, what we’ve done for the security of the country, in terms of law enforcement and the national security aspects of the drug problem—drugs coming from outside the country—has improved dramatically, because of the increased efforts along our borders, free sharing of intelligence information, the greater cooperation between surrounding countries like Mexico and Canada. In some of the supply countries, like Columbia, we have seen dramatic changes in leadership that promise to be much more effective on drugs.

I do think that in a time of war, to have a large public discussion at the highest levels is going to be less prominent because people are going to have to talk about the war and debate what we do with policy about the war.

I also think, in that regard, what does it do about the tone in society that is so important to whether people think drugs are something they should be doing or not doing? In talking to schoolchildren, as well as adults, as I do in my job as I travel around, the events of a year ago Sept. 11, have brought home to people that there is a lot at stake that we can’t take for granted. And some of that is that we have a responsibility because of the people who make the institutions in this country work—to protect us, to pass the blessings that we enjoy from one generation to the other—they give of themselves, some of them risk and give their lives, as we saw dramatically. More people are going to be asked to do that, obviously, in the time of war that we face now. I think that makes people aware that they have a responsibility to how they behave. They don’t take those responsibilities for granted; they don’t foolishly cast them away, and they don’t fail to watch what young people are doing because they are the generation that this is about. They are the Private Ryans that we are trying to save and pass on what we’ve enjoyed to others. That’s the tone that does help us talk more reasonably and responsibly.

What is your opinion of the movie Traffic?

I actually went to go see the movie Traffic at the recommendation of the President. When he asked me to take this job, and the end of the meeting that I had with him in the Oval Office, he asked me if I’d seen the movie. I said I hadn’t. He asked why. I said, ‘Mr. President, its one of those things where if you’ve been involved with something and there’s a movie about it, it’s hard to suspend disbelief. There’s little things that bother you, and I just assumed it would be like that.’ He said, ‘It’s a very powerful movie and you’ve got to go see it.’ I figured, this is the first homework assignment from my new boss; I’d better go do it.

It was bizarre to see a movie about a job you’re about to take, essentially. I think of this more of a job that has administrative responsibilities. I don’t think of it as a job that you have a dashing Hollywood actor play, so it was a little bizarre in that regard. I thought the movie certainly does not glamorize drug use. It was a very brutal showing of the consequences of drug use. I thought, on the other hand, the movie was too cynical, or too unwilling to see that it’s not all futile. People are working every day and they’re making a difference. People do get treated effectively. You didn’t see anyone get fully into recovery in that movie. Also, law enforcement makes a difference here. [In the movie] its presented as everybody’s corrupt in Mexico, except for one guy. Everybody in law enforcement thinks they don’t make a difference. That’s not what I see in law enforcement. They think they do have a tough job, and sometimes they feel that it’s two steps backward, one step forward, but generally speaking, they’re in it to make a difference, they know they are making people safer, and I think Americans need to know that.

Part of what’s the biggest threat in my job is a cynicism about the drug problem. The term Drug War was designed to say, ‘We need to rally the country with a consensus and make this a priority.’ It came to mean, ‘This is like a war where we’re going to fight two battles, and it ought to be over.’ That’s not the drug issue. That makes it sound like Vietnam. Everybody was all, we ought to pull out and try to make peace with honor here. Drugs are, I believe, linked to the better and worse angels in our nature. Drug abuse is a kind of self-destructive aspect of human nature. A civilized society tries to foster the better natures, and control the worse angels of our nature. I think that the drug problem is like educating young people, like preserving public health, like preserving a public safety. It’s our responsibility to build into our institutions the capacity to reduce the numbers of people who are victims of this. We know—and I think this is the most important, from years of research and experience—if teenagers do not begin using drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, they are not likely to use them when they are not teenagers and into their 20s. This is a problem that we can change the trajectory of for generations. Virtually everybody believes we need to protect children from dangerous addictive substances. If we do that, we’ll have fewer people who we have to treat, and we’ll have a kind of realization of the opportunities in this country that we all want for everyone, and our children especially.

Did you ever have an opportunity to smoke marijuana?

I have not smoked marijuana.

Did you ever have the opportunity?

I was certainly in college at a time where I had opportunities. Yes.