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Former Drug Czar Says Smarter Policy Needed 

A veteran drug policy maker is optimistic about the country's efforts to curb drug use but says more effort is needed to reduce the ravaging effects of addiction. 

Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Author: Michael Corkery, Journal Staff Writer 
Published: November 23, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Providence Journal Company
Contact: [email protected]

Providence -- Former drug czar and retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey said the effort to stem illegal drug use in the United States is working.

He said there are now more drug treatment programs, drug courts, and high- tech research about drug addiction.

Cocaine production has decreased in Latin American countries, such as Peru and Bolivia, allowing democracy to flourish there.

And with respect to Colombia, the Western Hemisphere's largest producer of cocaine and heroin, McCaffrey said U.S. policy is making slow, but steady progress in helping to restore order in that country.

In an interview yesterday at the Marriott Hotel, McCaffrey was unflappable in his belief that the nation's counter-drug policy has worked effectively -- despite a public perception that the so-called "war on drugs" is an utter failure.

"One of the worst things they came up with was the metaphor, the war on drugs," said McCaffrey, head of President Clinton's drug-control policy.

"I spent five years trying to replace it with a metaphor as a cancer affecting American communities."

The decorated Army veteran and West Point professor was invited to speak yesterday at the Citizens Bank/Providence College Veritas Forum, honoring activist Henry J. Shelton for his work helping the poor.

During an hour-long interview after the forum, McCaffrey said he takes the long view of the drug problem.

A commander in Vietnam, who watched drug use demoralize his troops, McCaffrey said that drug use is significantly down since its peak in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, McCaffrey said that "drug and alcohol addiction is the single most significant problem facing America. Period."

McCaffrey said that overall drug and alcohol use is decreasing, but chronic substance abusers need more help.

He said the solution requires expanding access to drug-treatment programs, which are costly and rarely covered by private insurance.

McCaffrey said insurers need to be told that covering treatment programs will reduce health-care costs becase addicts tend to suffer from HIV and other ailments as they age.

"We have to change the laws and trap the insurance industry into doing what is actually a smart policy move," he said.

McCaffrey said "misinformation" has plagued the national debate about drug policy.

For instance, he dismissed criticism that people have been locked in jail for years for simple drug possession. While their record might reflect such a charge, McCaffrey said the vast majority are put in jail because of a pattern of criminal behavior.

"As a general statement, people do not get arrested, prosecuted, put behind bars for the simple possession of illegal drugs when addicted," said McCaffrey.

On the issue of Colombia -- a country rife with political kidnappings, guerrilla warfare, and an industry producing 600 tons of cocaine a year -- McCaffrey praised its government and police force.

The United States provides military and other assistance to Colombia as part of its counter-drug efforts.

"We think they have advanced the policy," McCaffrey said of the Colombian government. "We think they are moving forward. We think the thing is working. We think it's immeasurably better."

He said intervention into Latin American countries to stop the flow of illegal drugs in the United States makes up only a small portion of Washington's counter-drug budget -- about 8 percent under McCaffrey's reign as drug czar.

"If you are trying to stop heroin addiction in Providence, the least likely way to do it is to go to Colombia and cut down opium bushes," he said.

"You ought to do some of that. But you shouldn't expect that you are going to change the chronic drug-taking behavior of 3.2 million cocaine addicts in the United States, and just under a million heroin addicts."

That doesn't mean the United States should give up trying to stop drug production altogether, McCaffrey said. This is an international problem that not only feeds addicts, but threatens struggling democracies in Latin America and Central Asia.

McCaffrey roundly dismissed people arguing one solution is to legalize drugs. "By the way, you probably don't know what you are talking about. But I certainly do," he said.

Before becoming Clinton's drug-policy director, McCaffrey commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the Persian Gulf War.

McCaffrey said he expected the division to experience between 500 and 2,000 casualties or injuries. In the end, there were eight deaths and 36 people wounded.

The recipient of two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts, McCaffrey predicts that there could be more casualties if the United States attacks Iraq again. He expects Saddam Hussein will use chemical weapons and that U.S. troops will encounter heavy fighting in Baghdad.

"We ought to treat this as a deadly serious project. My son is about to deploy, so this is not a theoretical prospect for me."

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