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Specific Strategy on Drug War Eludes Bennett

Times Staff Writer

In pledging to halt the nation’s drug scourge, President Bush has set a task so daunting that his designated drug czar, William J. Bennett, is unlikely to propose specific solutions until the new Administration is well under way, according to his aides and other drug experts.

Immediately after accepting the job, Bennett, facing a congressional deadline calling for him to draft a comprehensive anti-drug strategy within 180 days of taking office, requested that his confirmation hearings be put off so that he could assess the problem before the clock officially began to tick.

With those hearings finally scheduled to begin today, Bennett remains far from ready even to outline a new approach to the drug war, and is likely to fend off specific questions about it, his advisers say.

‘Achieve by Achieving It’

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“Reconfiguring the federal government’s drug universe, with a new coordinator and leader, is not something you work out on paper in advance,” said David Tell, Bennett’s deputy chief of staff. “It’s something you achieve by achieving it.”

Bennett himself insisted this week that he was “distressed” to hear his job described as a “mission impossible.”

“We cannot accept pessimism or fatalism in this task,” he said in a rare public address before the National Governors’ Conference.

But according to aides and outside drug experts who have met with him, the scope of the job and the controversial nature of proposed solutions have left Bennett undecided even after weeks of briefings about what the focus of the nation’s anti-drug efforts should be.

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Even the role Bennett himself will play in coordinating the war on drugs remains to be determined, they say.

“That,” a White House official said Tuesday, “is the $100,000 question.”

Those close to Bennett said they expect him to become much more visible and outspoken once his nomination is confirmed by the Senate.

“If you know Bill Bennett,” Tell said, “it’s difficult to imagine him being silent about a subject close to his heart. It’s not that we’re going to bury ourselves in a hole for six months.”

But Bennett and his staff at what is to be the Office of National Drug Control Policy have indicated that they expect to use the full six-month congressional allotment in drafting “an honest set of recommendations” for the nation’s anti-drug strategy.

In the meantime, government officials say, the nation’s anti-drug effort is likely to continue to be shaped for the most part from the bottom up, despite what was envisioned as a new era of “top-down” leadership from the drug czar.

Already this year, they say, the nearly $1-billion increase in the anti-drug budget proposed by Bush was distributed under a formula that largely balanced proposals made by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and other agencies responsible for waging the anti-drug fight.

For the short term, at least, that represents the continuation of a piecemeal strategy that a consensus of drug experts and government officials say has failed miserably.

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“We’re losing the war sorely, badly, completely,” Customs Commissioner William Von Raab declared early last month at a special U.S. Conference of Mayors session on the drug problem. “The force is with us, and that force is drugs.”

At that conference, no dissenting voices were raised. Instead, officials from the FBI, DEA and other anti-drug agencies took to the podium to make frank admissions that what they were doing wasn’t working. “We have become a totally drug-dependent society,” said deputy DEA Administrator Tom Kelly.

New statistics suggest that drug use is declining among high school seniors and the middle class, but there are sharp increases in drug use among poorer Americans, growing numbers of whom are turning to crack cocaine. And whatever the demographic shifts, the DEA estimates that one in 10 Americans has used illicit drugs in the last month, and one in five has used them in the last year.

End the Drug ‘Scourge’

Given such evidence of an intractable problem, some drug experts contend that the Bush Administration should tone down its rhetorical promise to end the drug “scourge” once and for all.

“If things stopped getting worse, everybody should be happy,” said Mark A. R. Kleiman, a drug policy expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Peter Bensinger, a former administrator of the DEA, said Bennett should act as the “quality assurance officer” within the government’s anti-drug effort, ensuring that every department and agency does its part.

Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, on the other hand, suggested in the forum before the governors’ conference that when it comes to turf battles between those agencies, “Bill Bennett’s going to have to be the main referee in the striped shirt.”

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Bennett has given little indication of the line of advice he is most likely to pursue, insisting that “politics is not part of the beat, not part of the job.”

Indeed, what public comments he has made have called attention not to public policy but to public opinion, which he contends may be “the most valuable weapon we can have in ending this scourge.”

No Silver Bullet

“We can’t get at it easy with some silver bullet or some technological fix,” Bennett told the governors’ conference on Monday.

But, he said: “The time may be right. The opportunity created by the concern, fear and anger of the American people may provide us with the opportunity to do what we must do.”


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