Congress impatient for drug war strategy Reno to lead off testimony at 'summit'

May 07, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton authorized a criminal investigation of his own brother for selling cocaine. As president, he termed drug abuse as serious a problem as the nation confronts. He appointed a respected police official as his drug policy director while also setting as his goal drug treatment "on demand."

His words have been well-received by those fighting the drug war, from Drug Enforcement Administration agents working undercover to counselors in drug treatment centers in the country's blighted big cities. But so far, there has been precious little action from this White House to back it up.

Today, at a "drug summit" organized by members of Congress impatient for leadership, the Clinton administration will start to reveal its priorities on how to fight drugs.

"I have been looking for a sense of direction on where they want to go, and I have seen none," said Jack Lawn, a former chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "People are waiting for that sense of direction, and it's imperative that there be one."

Mr. Clinton was late in appointing an attorney general, still has not filled key deputy posts at the Justice Department and did not name his drug policy chief until April 28. By waiting so long, the president effectively shut his drug policy nominee, Lee P. Brown, a former police chief in New York City, Atlanta and Houston, out of the budget decisions for the next fiscal year.

The result was a budget with essentially the same priorities as the Bush administration's, leading to questions on whether drug policy was a priority for the Clinton administration.

Even friendly Democrats on Capitol Hill have grown impatient.

"We want to put the fight against drugs on the map," Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who will chair today's conference. "And we want to get a feel for the players in the administration and where they want to go."

Interviews with administration officials -- and with those in the field who have been advising the administration -- indicate that the Clinton administration is inclined to try to shift the emphasis slightly in the drug war in a number of ways. The changes include:

* Spending less on drug interdiction outside the United States and more on treatment.

Interdiction, which ranges from sending Coast Guard boats on patrol to burning down poppy fields in Peru, is one part of the enforcement component, but it's the most expensive part. The administration would divert some of that money to treatment facilities, including those that operate in prison.

* Trying to revamp federal mandatory sentencing laws that put minor drug sellers or couriers in prison for long stretches. This is Attorney General Janet Reno's big push, and she is scheduled to be the leadoff witness today.

* Consolidating some functions of 35-odd agencies involved in drug law enforcement, in hopes of saving money and reducing turf battles.

To accomplish the consolidation, Mr. Clinton has elevated Mr. Brown to Cabinet-level status. Some wondered whether Mr. Clinton would select a treatment specialist for that job or a police official. The person he picked was both.

"He was a tough law enforcement official, but he has a Ph.D. and is an expert on treatment," said Mark Gearan, a White House deputy chief of staff. "The president doesn't see this as an either-or situation. The drug laws have to be enforced. And certainly, treatment is critical, too."

This is the consensus that has emerged in the field of fighting drugs.

On Wednesday, Ms. Reno attended a ceremony at the headquarters of the DEA, a proud agency characterized by tough police officers, 39 of whom have been killed in the line of duty over the years. But an interesting thing happened when Ms. Reno told these hard-core enforcement types that the federal and state governments simply couldn't afford to put every drug offender in the United States behind bars: They agreed.

"We know she's right," said William F. Alden, DEA's director of community and congressional affairs. "What kind of deterrent is it when you put someone in jail, and you've got to let someone else out because of overcrowding?"

Law enforcement officials had the same positive reaction the week before, when Mr. Clinton introduced Mr. Brown in the Rose Garden by pledging, "Our goal is to work toward treatment on demand."

Mr. Lawn, who began the DEA's education-based "Demand Reduction" unit in the early 1980s, said yesterday that $1.1 billion spent by the federal government annually on drug-related air reconnaissance is "the least effective thing we do."

"There is simply no question that no matter how much law enforcement you have, it is critically important to reduce demand through education and by reducing the addict population with treatment," he said.

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