When I was head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, a standard refrain of every public policy speech I gave was that enforcement alone cannot defeat our battle against drug violence and drug addiction. It is absolutely essential that we have education to lower the demand for drugs, law enforcement to lower the supply of drugs, and treatment to help those who have been ensnared by illegal drugs overcome their addictions. I endorsed and promoted the use of drug treatment courts, and implemented community involvement programs that brought together the prevention, enforcement and treatment communities to work together and in direct partnership to tackle the drug blight in local communities.

Make no mistake, however: All three of those components are necessary to any successful drug program. I am concerned by the increasing signals being issued from the Administration that drug use, particularly marijuana use, will be tolerated and that drug enforcement resources will be reduced.

History teaches us that success in reducing the use of illegal drugs is directly related to national leadership and to the public messages and comments that come from our leaders. The Administration’s message of tolerance and reduced enforcement of our marijuana laws comes at a time when the drug content (THC) in marijuana is increasing, according to very recent studies. Today’s marijuana is not your parents’ pot; it is more harmful and powerful than the marijuana that so freely flowed during the Sixties.

Yet, the Attorney General recently announced that the Department of Justice would now turn a blind eye to the pot factories masquerading as medical clinics in California and other states that have legalized so-called “medical marijuana,” putting them in direct conflict with federal law.  For the first time a policy of non enforcement has been announced when federal drug policy conflicts with state drug policy.

Meanwhile, the DEA continues to operate without even having a nominee named to lead the agency, more than 100 days into the new Administration. At a time when violence related to drug trafficking cartels on the southern border have reached crisis levels, spilling into kidnappings and violence in cities like Phoenix, this failure to provide Senate confirmed leadership at the nation’s premier drug enforcement agency is puzzling at best and seems to bolster the perception that this Administration puts little stock in enforcing our drug laws.

And now, with the announcement of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the new Drug Czar, the Administration is asserting that it will banish the use of the term “war on drugs” and will treat the fight against illegal drugs in this country more as a health issue than a law enforcement issue. Chief Kerlikoske suggested to the Washington Post that the term implied a war on U.S. citizens and pointed out, “We are not at war with people in this country.”

Chief Kerlikowske is a good man with good intentions. I had the privilege to attend a memorial service for fallen DEA agents yesterday, and Mr. Kerlikowske spoke eloquently. However, his argument that the term “war on drugs” implies a war on citizens suggests a failure on his part to understand the history of our national struggle against the devastating consequences of cocaine, meth, heroin and, yes, even marijuana. The term “war on drugs” (while perhaps politically incorrect) means exactly what it says: a fight against the poisons that are directly responsible for untold miseries to our citizens, for families in small towns torn apart by meth addiction, for bloody violence on neighborhood streets as drug gangs peddle their wares to our children.

I fully support greater resources for education and treatment, but those efforts cannot be successful without an equally vigorous law enforcement strategy. Drug treatment courts cannot be successful in reducing addiction if law enforcement does not make an arrest. Or are “treatment” programs effective for drug-law offenders without giving the drug court judge the option to sentence the offenders to jail if they refuse to participate in the program or fail to comply with the court’s rules.

You can be a strict enforcer of our laws and still support more treatment, more education and more fairness in our criminal justice system (such as eliminating the crack powder cocaine sentencing disparity, a reform which I have publicly supported).

Is the term “war on drugs” necessary? No, it’s not. But the message of our national leaders is critical. That message must convey the seriousness of the fight against drugs. It must strengthen rather than weaken the resolve of our youth, families and communities. More importantly, our actions must reflect the seriousness of this effort, and, so far, the actions of this Administration send the exact opposite message.

Indeed, when you have the leader of the movement to legalize drugs in this country applauding the policies of the Administration and announcing that he is “cautiously optimistic” about those policies, we know our message is failing the youth of this country.

Asa Hutchinson is the former Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the nation’s first Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security.

  • Great article. I agree. I remember the 60’s so I guess I
    “wasn’t there”