Just Say No to Drug Czars

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 8:05 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

The "drug czar" position has never worked as intended. Originally proposed as a cabinet-level coordinator of drug policy by Joe Biden in the early 80's, it was a knee-jerk response to growing hysteria over widespread cocaine use. Ronald Reagan initially vetoed the idea as more bureaucracy, but eventually got on board, signing the relevant legislation in 1988.

The post's creation was part of a package of harmful laws that included the death penalty for "drug kingpins" and the notorious mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine that helped make an already racially-biased drug policy (.pdf) into a situation where one in ten young African American men are in prison.

Ever since, the job has been held by political operatives (William Bennett), police officers (Lee Brown) and generals (Barry McCaffrey). Never once has an academic drug policy expert, an MD, PhD, or other addiction researcher who has actually studied the subject served as drug czar. Will that change under Obama?

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Historically, our czars have actively opposed sensible drug policy: They have gone on crusades against medical marijuana, interfered in state initiatives aimed at promoting treatment over punishment, and most notoriously, stopped President Clinton from letting his HHS secretary legalize federal funding for needle exchange when the data was incontrovertible that it helps fight AIDS and doesn't increase drug use.

The current czar is campaigning to get high schools to implement drug testing—something opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics as counter-productive to teen health. Another big initiative was the two billion dollar anti-drug media campaign—which may actually have increased drug use by those who viewed it.

And written into the job description is the idea that this czar must oppose even studying any form of drug legalization—including the discovery of medical uses for drugs currently listed in our drug laws as having no medical purpose, like marijuana. Never mind that medical science advances: If it turned out that marijuana could treat cancer or Alzheimer's, the drug czar is legally mandated to oppose it.

Writers are told that we must "kill our darlings" when they aren't useful to the narrative—and I'm sure it would be hard for VP-elect Joe Biden to let this Frankenstein's monster go. However, if any position has outlived its usefulness, the drug czar job is it.

Obama is apparently considering appointing a man who would be similar to his predecessors. Rep. Jim Ramstad opposes needle exchange and medical marijuana. While fighting to improve access to addiction treatment, he tried to exclude coverage for methadone maintenance—the treatment that science says is most effective for heroin and other opioid addictions.

Instead of spending $464 million on this needless and harmful agency—$26 million of that on salaries for the czar and his staff (.pdf)—let's put this relic of the 80's away with Miami Vice.

Or, if we're going to be stuck with it, let's hire an academic researcher or MD who knows that needle exchange saves lives; methadone works and is over-regulated; addiction treatment needs to be varied, empathetic, and not humiliating to be effective; 12-step programs are not the only way; treatment providers should only be paid to provide treatment proven to be effective; mandatory minimums don't work, and prison should be reserved for violent criminals.

—Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz is the author of "Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids," and Senior Fellow at stats.org.

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