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In a rare slap at a top administration official, Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley told Iowa reporters on Wednesday that President Bush should fire the nation’s drug czar, John Walters, for wasting too many resources on marijuana. He went on to suggest that the drug czar should be focusing resources on methamphetamine instead. Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin called for Walters’ resignation the next day. The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s largest organization working to treat drug use as a health issue, thanked the Senators for their honest admission that the war on marijuana is a waste of resources, but cautioned that the federal government could do more harm than good if it focused on methamphetamine in the wrong way.
“Like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition is destroying too many lives and wasting too much money and should be repealed as quickly as possible,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But, the history of drug control efforts shows that the federal government’s punitive approach to drugs is destroying families, perpetuating racial disparities and failing to do much good, and policymakers should keep that in mind when talking about shifting resources to dealing with methamphetamine abuse.”
Warning that John Walters would put ideology over good drug policy, the Drug Policy Alliance led a national coalition in 2001 and 2002 to stop the Senate from confirming him as drug czar. The coalition warned that “Mr. Walters’ views on civil rights, drug treatment, and a number of other issues make him the wrong person for the important position of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.” A majority of members of the Congressional Black Caucus signed a letter stating their concern that “his views on race and crime make him unfit for a position that requires sensitivity to racial fairness.” Senators went on to confirm his nomination anyway.
The calls for Walters to be fired by Senators Grassley and Harkin are only the latest in a growing controversy surrounding the Drug Czar’s obsession with marijuana, the least dangerous illegal drug. From multi-million dollar ad campaigns comparing marijuana users to terrorists to using taxpayer money to influence voters to reject medical marijuana laws, Walters has made marijuana his top priority. Evidence that he has shifted resources from fighting heroin and cocaine to fighting marijuana – which he calls America’s most dangerous drug – has sparked continuous concern among policymakers.
In September 2005, Congressman Mark Souder, the Chair of the House Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee, called for the resignation of top ONDCP officials. Speaking on the office’s obsession with marijuana over meth, Souder said, “If they continue to defend the way they’re going, it’s time for some of the top people to resign.” Souder called ONDCP staffer David Murray’s presentation on methamphetamine to the Drug Policy Subcommittee “pathetic” and an “embarrassment.” He warned Walters, “…;Clearly, if he does not lead, we need a change of the drug czar … If Director Walters and anyone else in that office agrees with what was said today, they should resign.”
While there is a growing consensus that the federal government should stop wasting resources on marijuana, switching the resources to methamphetamine might not be the answer. Experts say the best way to deal with the methamphetamine problem is to expand treatment services, and California is leading the way. Tens of thousands of methamphetamine users are receiving treatment as a result of California’s Proposition 36, which mandates treatment-instead-of-incarceration for certain nonviolent drug offenders. In contrast, members of Congress have largely sponsored bills designed to give nonviolent drug offenders long prison sentences.
“We fear that the federal government will adopt the same policies that didn’t work with other drugs to fight methamphetamine,” said Nadelmann. “Long mandatory minimums are not the answer. We need more money for drug treatment.”