Conferees Back Drug Czar With Cabinet Rank : Complex Bill Includes Death Penalty in Killings Tied to Narcotics Traffic

Times Staff Writer

House and Senate negotiators Thursday agreed to compromise legislation establishing a Cabinet-level federal drug czar and imposing a death penalty on murderers who kill as part of a drug-trafficking enterprise.

The death penalty and drug czar provisions are the centerpieces of an election-year anti-drug bill that could be passed as early as today as the last official act of the 100th Congress.

Congressional leaders, working long hours in closed meetings, ironed out hundreds of major differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Late Thursday night, the few remaining issues were resolved, and language was added to strengthen laws against obscenity.

The massive bill is so complex that even many of those involved in the negotiations were uncertain how their disagreements had been resolved. “I think it’s going to be a good bill, even though we are flying blind,” Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) said.


House Urged Sub-Cabinet Post

One of the compromises that proved most difficult to achieve involved the drug czar provision. The Senate wanted to create a Cabinet-level position with broad responsibility over drug-related programs throughout the bureaucracy; the House wanted a sub-Cabinet job with a limited role.

The compromise, which is closer to the Senate version, would establish a Cabinet-level position and require the drug czar to develop a national strategy for enforcement and treatment programs, giving him power to intervene in the budget-making processes of the agencies.

President Reagan vetoed similar legislation in 1982, arguing that the tasks of a drug czar already were being carried out by Vice President George Bush. But Administration officials said Reagan has changed his mind and will sign this bill.


Under the compromise, the drug legislation would specifically prohibit the vice president from serving as the drug czar--a function that GOP vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle has said he would perform if Bush is elected President on Nov. 8. It would also abolish three panels that now coordinate drug programs, one headed by the vice president, one by the attorney general and a third that is run from the White House.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the creation of a drug czar will vastly improve the government’s efforts to combat drugs.

“Just as we would never send an army into battle to fight the enemy without a good plan and a good general, we cannot begin the war on drugs without a national strategy and a single Cabinet officer with the authority to implement the strategy,” he said.

Authors of the legislation said that the drug czar’s position would be comparable to that of the director of central intelligence.

The death penalty provision was more of an even compromise between the House and Senate. The broader House provision would have allowed the death penalty for anyone convicted of intentionally killing in connection with a drug felony; the Senate would have limited it to those who intentionally kill someone in connection with a continuing criminal enterprise or those convicted of killing a law enforcement officer in connection with a drug felony.

The compromise permits capital punishment for anyone who carries out a murder or hires someone to commit a murder in connection with a continuing criminal enterprise, in connection with a felony involving the importation or distribution of drugs or in connection with any drug felony if the victim of the murder is a police officer.

Now, only two crimes--murder in the act of air piracy and espionage by military personnel--are subject to the death penalty under federal law. Legal scholars say that all other federal death penalty statutes were invalidated by a 1972 Supreme Court decision that outlined the circumstances under which capital punishment may be carried out.

Negotiators, faced with the threat of a floor fight, also reversed their plans to weaken an obscenity amendment.


They agreed to restore in part tough penalties against major dealers or producers of obscene materials who were “knowingly engaged for a long period of time” in such actions. The conferees had earlier accepted Senate language that includes a 20-year-to-life prison term for anyone convicted of facilitating use of a child for producing sexually explicit materials.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) announced that the House Appropriations Committee had agreed to set aside $500 million for implementation of the measure in fiscal 1989, with the money equally divided between law enforcement and drug treatment programs. Democrats have favored more money for treatment; Republicans have favored enforcement.