Clinton Steps Up Anti-Drug Effort, But Can’t Avoid Political Punches

President Clinton told school children here Monday that he wants a comprehensive effort to crack down on drugs, repeating an earlier proposal to increase anti-drug funding for next year’s budget by nearly 10 percent and adding an initiative to stop the rapid growth in the use of methamphetamine, a stimulant known on the street as “crank.”

Drug control is an issue which stayed mostly in the shadows during the first three years of the Clinton administration. But the obvious political subtext to Monday’s drug rhetoric was filled with ritual professions that this issue should be above politics. “Make no mistake about it, this has got to be a bipartisan, American, non-political effort,” Clinton said.

House Republicans did not exactly heed the president’s words. “He has spent the last three years dismantling America’s anti-drug war and now he says he wants to rebuild it,” said Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Retired Army four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, recently tapped by Clinton to lead the administration’s anti-drug efforts, added that it “would be irresponsible to make this a political issue.”

But the very office that McCaffrey heads, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, reflects the administration’s changing views about how to deal with the drug issue. At the start of the administration the office had its staff slashed, cuts made to help Clinton meet his campaign pledge to trim White House personnel by 25 percent.

When McCaffrey took the job, he got those staff positions back. He said Monday that the administration’s earlier approach, which returned some responsibility for drug fighting to Cabinet secretaries, “didn’t work out.”

His newly empowered office crafted the “National Drug Control Strategy” that Clinton formally unveiled Monday. The strategy puts an emphasis on law-enforcement, increasing the number of border patrols, for instance, but also on some initiatives Republicans haven’t always supported - such as government-subsidized drug treatment.

McCaffrey, a respected figure among Republicans on Capitol Hill who says Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan, counts as “one of my personal heroes,” gave Clinton cover on the treatment issue. Focusing primarily on arrests and prison time, he said, “is not the way to solve this problem.”

The administration does think tougher sentences in the answer in some areas, though.

Methamphetamine, a synthetic drug that has long been popular in West Coast motorcycle grounds, in recent years has been gaining in general popularity. The administration proposes making sentences the same for the drug as for crack cocaine - a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for possession of five grams or more.

Drug use generally has been going down. Since 1985, according to federal figures, the average number of people who have used drugs in the past month has fallen by half, from 22.3 million to 12.2 million. But the trends for past-month use among people aged 12 to 17 are headed in the opposite direction - up 50 percent between 1992 and 1994.

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