How not to fight drugs Clinton only gives lip service to treating abusers


NON-DEBATES are a standard part of drug war politics in election years. Bob Dole attacks Clinton for his less-than- zealous anti-drug messages and his failure to dramatically escalate the Reagan-Bush war on the drug supply. Clinton responds by appointing a general as drug czar, escalating the drug war and raising the volume of the get-tough rhetoric. With problems of drug abuse continuing -- and even worsening -- over the past 15 years, why is there so little talk of treatment? Why is the major "debate" confined to "tough vs tougher"?

Candidate Bill Clinton tried to stake out new ground in the drug debate in 1992 when he criticized incumbent George Bush in the 1992 campaign. Bush, he said, confuses "being tough with being smart" because he "thinks locking up addicts instead of treating them before they commit crimes . . . is clever politics."

As president, Clinton never considered serious cutbacks in drug law enforcement budgets when he came to office, but he did try to place treatment -- rather than punishment -- of drug users at the center of his drug strategy. Now incumbent Clinton has little to say about drug treatment as an alternative to the failed strategy of punishing drug users. What happened to the treatment alternative -- and who is to blame?

For treatment of drug users to take hold as a viable political alternative to the current "get-tough" strategy would have demanded more than rhetoric. Clinton needed to put forward programs, to mobilize support for them in Congress and among the public, and to fight for them. But when his initiatives ran into obstacles, he failed to stand firm, undercutting the ground he had staked out.

The White House launched a major treatment initiative in 1993. With treatment unavailable to over half of the roughly 3.6 million people suffering from drug abuse and addiction problems, the administration argued that "treating America's drug problem must start with an aggressive effort to finally break the cycle of hard-core drug use." Hard-core addicts, experts showed, consumed 80 percent of the U.S. cocaine supply, committed much of the crime related to drugs, and sent health care costs skyrocketing. The White House boldly proposed legislation to increase spending for hard-core substance abuse by $355 million -- the largest increase ever -- but when it ran into opposition in Congress, the administration backed down and sent signals it was a low priority.

The same year, Attorney General Janet Reno sought to question harsh mandatory sentences that sent non-violent drug offenders prison for 10 to 15 years instead of dealing with their drug problems. It made sense to reconsider a policy that locked up people whose major problem was addiction, people who had often committed crimes for money to support their habits. Prison terms failed miserably as a means to stop such addiction and crime -- and arrests for non-violent drug offenders were filling prisons and at times triggering the release of more violent offenders. But when conservatives protested talk of reducing mandatory sentences, she and Clinton grew silent, and then backed yet tougher sentencing.

In the 1994 crime bill, some provision was made for in-prison treatment (to reduce the chances of addiction-based crime once offenders were released) and for drug courts (to divert non-violent offenders whose convictions were linked to drug use into mandatory treatment instead of prison). But when Congress refused to authorize more than a pittance to fund these programs, the administration did not fight.

Clinton's poor record on defending treatment for those with drug problems left him vulnerable when conservatives in Congress seized the offensive, rolling back existing programs. In 1995, Congress slashed 20 percent from the budget of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In early 1996, Congress cut Social Security disability insurance for people whose disabilities were alcoholism or drug addiction -- cutting them off from Medicaid and treatment -- and Clinton signed the bill.

When Sen. Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas, put forward legislation cutting off all federal benefits to individuals (largely women) convicted of drug-related felonies, the administration negotiated away their rights to food stamps and AFDC benefits as a "compromise" and did not make a public issue of it, despite the new burden the plan would impose on poor families struggling to deal with substance abuse problems.

In 1992, candidate Clinton understood that defending drug treatment would be an uphill battle. "Emphasizing treatment may not satisfy people fed up with being preyed upon," he said, "but a president should speak straight even if what he advocates isn't popular. If he sticks to his guns, the results will prove the wisdom of his policy." But Clinton refused to stick to his guns and by 1996 he had few programs and little record to stand on had he wanted to make treatment an election issue.

We can accuse the president of cowardice here, of failing to "stick to his guns." But this is too simple. Clinton backed off because there are few votes to be gained in fighting hard for treatment, and some political risk. There is a deep public judgment against treating rather than punishing drug users, and politicians know it well.

Many Americans harbor deep and long-standing antagonism to drug treatment based on the widespread harsh images of people with drug problems. If they are poor and black, they are dangerous and criminal; if they are middle-class and white, they are lax, liberal, and responsible for inflicting this problem on themselves. In either case, they deserve punishment and condemnation, not care and treatment. It is these images that conservatives draw on, claiming that government money for treatment coddles criminals, or is a public giveaway to people who have no one to blame but themselves.

Clinton and drug czar Barry McCaffrey know these images to be false. They know that substance abusers need to be treated with dignity, not disdain -- as people, not pariahs -- just as we treat heavy smokers and heavy drinkers whose problems are also largely self-inflicted. McCaffrey has argued, though rather quietly, that "these people aren't the enemy," but "are our mothers, the other guy on the track team, our Vietnam buddies, that's who's addicted."

Clinton and his top aides also know how difficult it is for people who want to break their addictions to do so without help -- and if they are jobless, homeless, or mentally ill this means publicly funded treatment and social support.

But Clinton has been unwilling to use the presidential bully pulpit to challenge the conventional wisdom. When he does defend treatment, it is simply as a means to fight crime. Riding the get-tough-on-crime wave may help get some treatment funding, but it continues to reinforce the images of substance abusers as primarily criminals.

But his central response to Republican attacks this election year has nothing to do with treatment, and everything to do with appearing tougher. In the ensuing non-debate about drug policy, he offers little more than a warmed-over Reagan-Bush strategy.

Eva Bertram, a Washington policy analyst, and Kenneth Sharpe, professor and chair at Swarthmore College's political science department, are co-authors of "Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial" (University of California Press, 1996).

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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