The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By JOHN P. WALTERS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

More broadly, the president has failed to offer even token support to the efforts of religious leaders, communities, law enforcement, medical personnel, and local officials. These efforts are unquestionably aided by political leadership, as New York Democratic representative Charles Rangel acknowledged when he said Clinton's lack of leadership makes him nostalgic for Nancy Reagan.

Of course, Clinton's unwillingness to target drug use among young people is not the sum total of the drug problem. There are addicts. HHS estimates their number at 7 million, most of whom started out as young drug users in the 1970s and 1980s.

Hard-core drug use is defined by doctors as a chronic condition, meaning that the only hope for most addicts is detox followed by repeated stays in a treatment facility. The best way to reach addicts is to drive up the price of drugs. Because addicts can only beg, borrow, and steal so much, making drugs expensive and reducing their potency forces addicts to spend their limited disposable income on a smaller quantity of lower-quality drugs -- a major incentive to enter treatment.

Having cheap drugs -- lots of drugs -- tends to lead to increased numbers of addicts in hospital emergency rooms. Make drugs expensive and lives are saved. In 1989 and 1990, the Bush administration's concerted effort to interdict the flow of drugs into the United States contributed to a 43 percent increase in the price of street cocaine -- which was accompanied by a 27 percent reduction in cocaine-related emergency-room admissions and overdoses.

These numbers have been roughly reversed under Bill Clinton, despite a drug strategy that is supposedly targeted at hard-core addicts. The Clinton strategy deliberately deemphasized measures like interdiction that make drugs scarce and expensive. As a result, prices have fallen, use is up, and addicts are getting sicker.

Are there other non-policy causes behind this increase in drug use? Of course. No social phenomenon can be reduced to a single cause, and there is even some evidence that drug use among a small subset of young people was already increasing at the time Clinton was elected. But the U.S. government has successfully managed two major drug epidemics in this century. Bill Clinton is not a hostage, lashed to the mast of a sinking ship. He is the president, and there are things he can do to reduce the drug problem. Instead, he has done things that have helped make it worse.

John P. Walters is co-author, with William J. Bennett and John J. DiIulio, Jr. of Body Count (Simon & Schuster). He served in the drug czar's office during the Bush administration.