Senate Confirms Controversial ‘Drug Czar’, Despite Widespread Opposition

Press Release December 5, 2001
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Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 or Shayna Samuels at 212 547 6916w

Despite opposition from a majority of Congressional Black Caucus Members, the Betty Ford Center, and a range of civil rights and public health groups, the Senate confirmed by voice vote last night President Bush’s controversial ‘drug czar’ nominee, John Walters. While Walters’ critics remain concerned by many of his views, they note that he has seemed to back away from some of his most troubling positions.

“Walters needs to focus on prevention that works and maintain his new found commitment to drug treatment. We only hope that after being confirmed he will continue to reject his previous ‘lock them up and throw away the keys’ rhetoric and policies,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau. “Civil rights and public health groups will be watching closely.”

“Although Walters’ record remains far outside the mainstream on civil rights, public health, and drug policy, he does seem to have moved considerably from some of his hard-line views – at least in his rhetoric,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center – Drug Policy Foundation. “There’s a new consensus in Washington. After this confirmation process even John Walters realizes that it’s time for America to change our failing drug strategy to one that emphasizes public health and ends racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

President Bush’s choice of John Walters for drug czar has stirred controversy from the start. In September, a coalition of civil rights and public health groups, including the ACLU and NAACP, issued a scathing analysis of his views on race, crime and drug treatment. Prior to Walters’ confirmation, the National Education Association, National Urban League, and other organizations released a statement deploring that, “Mr. Walters has advocated for policies that would result in locking up more African American youth.” In addition, a majority of Congressional Black Caucus Members, the Latino Voters League, the National Black Police Association, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and other groups have declared Walters “unfit for a position that requires sensitivity to racial fairness.”

The range of opposition Walters faced going into his Senate confirmation hearing may have had an effect on him, as he seemed to moderate some of his long-held positions, including promising more money for drug treatment and indicating support for a Congressional review of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. While some Senators accused Walters of having what cynics call a “confirmation conversion” (when nominees suddenly change their controversial positions after being nominated for an executive office), many Senators decided to take him at his word, but indicated they would be watching him to make sure he fulfills his promises.

“Like DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson and President Bush, Walters has indicated support for more federal funding for drug treatment programs and a review of federal mandatory minimums sentences and the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity,” said William McColl, Director of National Affairs for the Lindesmith Center – Drug Policy Foundation. “We will be working with Congress and voters to hold their feet to the fire on their promises.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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