“I WOULD HOPE that we are judged by the lives that are touched and the
hope that we give America,” declared Asa Hutchinson, Bush’s former
Drug Enforcement Agency chief during a press conference on his first day
in his new job. Considering that the DEA seeks to maximize the number of
people that it sends to prison each year for drug offenses, such
“touching” rhetoric should be chilling. But Hutchinson is barreling
forward with page after page from Bill Clinton’s rhetorical playbook.
At the same August 20 press conference, Hutchinson announced, “I think
part of my mission is to give hope to America.” A few weeks earlier,
Hutchinson made the stunning announcement, “I am excited to have the
opportunity to serve Arkansas and the country by beginning our great
national crusade against illegal drugs.”
Perhaps Hutchinson has been too busy to tour any prisons recently.
Prisons are overflowing with hundreds of thousands of drug offenders. In
the same week in which he took office at the DEA, a federal report
bragged that the number of people convicted in federal drug courts had
doubled since 1986.
Hutchinson’s talk about “beginning” a “crusade” against
illegal drugs signals the Bush administration’s intention to greatly
ratchet up the drug war. Yet the evidence of the failure of the punitive
approach is overwhelming.
Despite conservative caterwauling during recent years, President Clinton
actually greatly intensified the drug war. Four million Americans were
arrested for marijuana violations, the vast majority for simple
possession, during Clinton’s reign. The number of people arrested for
drug offenses rose by 73 percent between 1992 and 1997, according to the
American Bar Association.
But Clinton’s crackdown was a dismal failure. More Americans died from
drug overdoses and more Americans went to hospital emergency rooms for
drug-related problems in 1998 than ever before. More high-school
students (90 percent) reported that marijuana was “fairly easy” or
“very easy” to get than ever before. The price of heroin and cocaine
were near all-time lows at the end of the 1990s — signaling the total
failure of U.S. interdiction policies.
Like a good Washingtonian, Hutchinson is responding to these debacles by
redefining the baseline:
I think you have to put this in perspective; that whenever you look at
national social problems, whether you look at child abuse, whether you
look at teen violence, whenever you impact people’s lives, it’s a
victory.... So I look at the drug problem in this nation as one where
we’ve had enormous success.
Apparently, as long as the DEA continues sending tanker-loads of people
to prison each year, the drug war is going just fine and dandy.
Hutchinson was asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer what action he would
take to stem the flow of fraudulent arrest statistics from the DEA
(which, in the past, has routinely seized credit for drug busts made by
other police agencies or other nations). He responded, “We have to
have the correct moral compass and the proper training to make sure we
gather our statistics in a correct and truthful fashion.” But
Hutchinson seems far too infatuated by the righteousness of law
enforcement to exert the effort to make the DEA go straight.
At his inaugural press conference as DEA chief, Hutchinson proclaimed:
“I believe that law enforcement sets the right tone for America.”
During his time as a congressman, he was perennially hysterical about
any proposal to limit the power of law enforcement. In 1998, when
Congress was considering a law to require federal prosecutors to cease
violating the ethics code of state bar associations, he exploded:
“This would jeopardize our fight in the war against drugs. The winner
would be the drug cartels, fraudulent telemarketing operations, and
In 1999, when Congress was considering a law to restrict federal
agents’ power to confiscate private property, he proposed a substitute
bill that would have greatly increased government’s power to grab.
Hutchinson whined on the House floor, “How does disarming law
enforcement fit into the war on drugs?” Thus, decreasing a DEA
agent’s power to seize someone’s car is the equivalent of taking
away his sidearm. Apparently, the main “armament” in the war on
drugs is the sweeping power of law enforcement over nonviolent, private
Hutchinson revealed at the press conference,
I think part of my mission is to give hope to America and to make
sure that America understands that we’re making a difference in the
challenges that we face as a nation.
But the U.S. Constitution says nothing about federal agents having the
power to give citizens’ hope. Instead, the Constitution imposes strict
limits on the arbitrary power of federal agents.
Hutchinson occasionally sounds like a bleeding-heart liberal, declaring
that the DEA must embark on “a compassionate crusade.”
Unfortunately, people suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy
are outside the bounds of his compassion.
The new DEA chief declared,
It is very important that we understand that we don’t want to do
anything to take pain medication away from people. We all have sympathy
for folks that need medication, but we have to listen to the scientific
and medical community and they’re saying that marijuana has no
legitimate medical purpose.
According to Hutchinson’s view, Americans should pretend that recent
studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the
American Journal of Psychiatry, and the British medical journal Lancet
on marijuana’s medical benefits and risk were never published.
Hutchinson was pressed on this issue at his first press conference and
We’re all touched by the human side of things, and as a son with a
mom who has passed away no one wants an elderly person to suffer
needlessly. You want good pain medication.
This statement was another page torn out of the Clinton playbook.
Apparently, since Hutchinson’s own mother died, no one can fairly
accuse him of being cold-hearted regarding the unnecessary pain that the
DEA causes other senior citizens. Presumably, if Hutchinson’s hound
dog had died, he would claim the moral authority to oversee federal
policies designed to needlessly torment millions of other dogs across
the land. In trial after trial across the country, the DEA is cracking
down on doctors who prescribe pain medications to those patients
suffering the worst agonies.
Perhaps it is impossible to fight a “war on drugs” without
institutionalized dishonesty. Hutchinson’s comments signal that drug
policy may be the area where the Bush administration does the most harm
to civil liberties. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush hailed DEA
agents as “the greatest freedom fighters any nation could have, people
who provide freedom from violence and freedom from drugs and freedom
from fear.” Unfortunately, his son also seems to expect that the path
to freedom consists in giving as much power as possible to federal drug
The war on drugs is essentially a civil war to uphold the principle that
politicians should have absolute power over what citizens put into their
The key to the drug laws is the concept of controlled substance. The
drug war gives certain government officials absolute power to draw the
line between permitted and forbidden substances.
A civil war
The war on drugs means that comfortable politicians and
political appointees sitting in their cushioned chairs should have
absolute power to decree what people on their deathbeds with cancer are
permitted to take to kill their pain.
The ultimate question is: Who should pay the cost of drug abuse —
society or the drug abuser? If drugs were legal, we would still see
deaths from overdoses, but there would be far fewer deaths from gun
battles among drug dealers, far fewer neighborhoods destroyed by drug
dealers, and far fewer deaths from contaminated drugs.
The question is not whether drugs are bad for the individual but whether
society has a right to punish people for how they treat their own
bodies. It is naive to view most drug users as innocent victims of
But it is ludicrous to view casual drug users as dangerous social
enemies who deserve a dose of ayatollah-justice. And regardless of how
much the second Bush administration ratchets up this “great
crusade,” the government will continue losing its war to minutely
control the daily life and habits of every citizen.
James Bovard is the author of Feeling Your Pain: The
Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years
(St. Martin’s Press, now in paperback)