How Will Bush's Pick for Drug Czar Affect U.S. Policy?

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PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP

President Bush introduces John P. Walters, his nominee for drug "czar"

Pending what could be a bitter confirmation battle, America has a new drug czar.

Thursday morning, President Bush presented John Walters to a crowd gathered in the Rose Garden. Walters, who was Bush’s expected choice to fill the office left vacant by Barry McCaffrey’s January departure, is a conservative known for his hard-line policies on drug offenders.

TIME’s Elaine Shannon has been following the fluctuations in U.S. drug policy for years. She spoke with TIME.com Thursday morning about the man slated to take over the $19 billion office.

TIME.com: What can you tell us about John Walters’ reputation in Washington?

Elaine Shannon: John is a disciple of William Bennett, who served as drug czar under Bush senior. He actually co-wrote a book with Bennett and John D’Iulio (who heads the White House program on faith-based initiatives) called "Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win the War Against Crime and Drugs."

That book, published in 1996, makes several arguments that give you a sense of where Walters stands on drug enforcement. First, that throwing money at the drug problem isn’t an effective solution. Second, it argues that the country is in danger because there are a growing number of young people who do not receive the moral education that used to be automatically instilled in even the poorest kids by community groups, parents or churches. The authors argue that that structure, which provided kids with moral guidelines, is gone, and it can only be reintroduced if communities and faith-based organizations step up to the plate.

Will Walters’ conservative edge give him trouble during his confirmation hearings? Or will it help him?

I doubt it will be a problem. John is a conservative, but he’s not a religious ideologue. I wouldn’t put him in the most extreme category. I regard him as a pragmatist.

Legalization advocates worry that Walters will give short shrift to demand-side programs like treatment. He says he won’t dismiss treatment programs, but will demand that they be carefully evaluated for effectiveness.

Walters is on record as being very critical of Clinton’s drug policies because they focused on cocaine and crack addicts (who tend to be hard-core, more violent offenders) rather than middle class recreational drug users. John believes it’s critical to emphasize and focus on all types of illegal drug use.

Barry McCaffrey, Clinton’s drug czar, was in turn critical of Walters for what McCaffrey felt was Walters’ inadequate attention to treatment. Walters says he doesn’t give inadequate attention to treatment, but rather that he believes treatment alone cannot solve this problem.

Walters says that advocates of drug legalization argue that most people can use so-called "recreational drugs" like marijuana the way some people drink beer — i.e. without becoming addicted and ending up on skid row. And legalization advocates argue that in a state where certain drug use is legal, the state uses money once funneled into enforcement and uses it on treatment for people who’ve become addicted.

Walters says this is a delusion. He believes people who advocate this are purposefully ignoring the long-term impact of drug addiction on some individuals. In fact, Walters will point out, as we’ve seen in the case of Robert Downey Jr., some addicts cannot get off drugs at any cost or under any threat. Walters believes it is morally wrong to suggest otherwise.

Where does Walters stand on jail time versus treatment for drug users?

He supports the notion that first- and second-time offenders shouldn’t go to jail, they should go to treatment. But he says people who are repeatedly caught with drugs only the threat of jail will keep them in a treatment program.

Is there anything particularly controversial about Walters? Any statements he’s made or policies he’s supported in the past that could come back to haunt him?

He has in the past supported the disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine, which critics called racially motivated, because he believed crack has more potential to harm an entire community via violence. Now, however, he will accept the idea of making the sentences equal. Possibly by making sentences for user lighter.

He was the author of the Andean strategy during Bush 1 administration. The strategy revolved around giving a lot of aid and training, including military training, to forces in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. The Peru aspect of the strategy was controversial then because of Peru’s human-rights record. It’s still controversial because of Peru’s human rights record, and now even more so because of the recent shoot-down of the American missionary plane. I expect Walters will be grilled about this strategy, and asked about its long-term effectiveness when he comes up for confirmation.