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The Hopped-Up DEA Chief

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“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 new 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 Internet pornographers.”

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 citizens.

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 he elaborated,

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 agents.

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 own bodies.

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 pushers.

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.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.