Bennett steps down from drug post to mixed reviews


WASHINGTON -- William J. Bennett, the nation's first "drug czar," went out with a bang yesterday, calling one congressional critic "a gas bag" and labeling the drug-plagued District of Columbia "a basket case."

President Bush, in accepting Mr. Bennett's resignation, praised his leadership of the anti-drug effort over the past two years and said that the nation "is on the road to victory" in the war on drugs.

"Both Bill and I are encouraged by recent, very promising signs that suggest the drug problem is diminishing, not only in the suburbs, but in the cities as well," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush said he had not begun thinking of a replacement.

Mr. Bennett predicted that within five years, the federal government would meet its goal of reducing drug abuse by 50 percent. "The reality is clear: This country is beginning to break its interest and habit on drugs," he said.

Last year, Mr. Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, laid out a strategy that called for beefing up law enforcement and using the military to cut the supply of drugs crossing the borders.

Critics complained yesterday that Mr. Bennett was leaving too soon to take credit for any changes in drug use. Surveys indicate that casual drug use has been declining for several years.

"I think he brought more coherence and cooperation to the drug efforts at the federal and state levels," said George Washington University law professor Gerald Caplan, who serves on an American Bar Association committee on drugs.

"But I also think he manipulated the issue politically and proclaimed success prematurely. He should have said straight out [that] this is going to be a very long struggle and the costs would be high."

On Capitol Hill, the reaction to Mr. Bennett's departure was mixed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., praised the drug czar, saying that he "performed with impressive intellect and success."

But Representative Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., who chairs a House subcommittee on narcotics abuse, called the Bush administration's anti-drug effort "a colossal failure." He denounced Mr. Bennett for using his office to preach against the decline of families and inner cities.

"Mr. Rangel is a gas bag," Mr. Bennett retorted when told of the congressman's comments. "He has nothing to do with drug policy."

Mr. Bennett also blamed Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who was convicted for cocaine possession, for making the drug crisis even worse in the nation's capital. Last year, Mr. Bennett met with Mr. Barry to discuss drugs in the city.

"I suspected that his interest in the topic was different from mine," Mr. Bennett said, "and we were going to get less than 100 percent cooperation."

Mr. Bennett, 47, disputed accounts that he was leaving his post because he was bored, eager to run for political office or frightened by threats.

"I'm not the stampeded-out-of-town type," he said.

He said only that he was taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute, where he planned to write a book on American education and go on the lecture circuit.

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