"The Drug War Worked Once. It Can Again." So read the headline above William J. Bennett's recent defense of drug czar nominee John Walters in The Wall Street Journal. Bennett, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's first director, was responding to charges that Walters, his former deputy, overemphasizes law enforcement and gives short shrift to "treatment and prevention." The thrust of Bennett's piece was that Walters' approach to drug policy is the same one that worked so well in the 1980s.
Bennett's claims in this area have to be taken with a grain of salt. When he left the drug czar's job in November 1990, 20 months after taking office, he bragged about downward trends in drug use that had begun years before he was appointed. He is doing something similar with his broader claim about the success of the War on Drugs waged by the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
His evidence comes from two surveys sponsored by the federal government. In the 1979 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 14.1 percent of respondents said they'd used illegal drugs during the previous month; that number fell to 5.8 percent in 1992, after which it started going up, hitting 6.7 percent in 1999, the last year for which data are available. The Monitoring the Future Study shows a similar pattern: The share of high school seniors reporting past-month drug use fell from 38.9 percent in 1979 to 14.4 percent in 1992 before climbing to 26.2 percent in 1997; last year it was 24.9 percent.
Bennett's interpretation, which is widely accepted among Republicans and conservatives, is that Reagan and Bush were tough on drugs, so drug use declined; Clinton was soft on drugs, so drug use went up. Since drug arrests and drug control spending rose to record levels under Clinton, the premise that his administration was lax in this area is questionable, to say the least.
In any case, both surveys show illegal drug use peaking in 1979, two years before Reagan took office. And although the upswing measured in the two studies does coincide with the beginning of the first Clinton administration, the survey of high school seniors indicates that drug use among teenagers started to fall again in 1998, three years before George W. Bush took office.
Precisely why drug consumption has risen and fallen the way it has during the last two decades is not clear. But this much seems certain: If Walters measures up to his mentor, inconvenient timing won't stop him from taking credit for declining drug use.