Q&A: Drug czar John P. Walters blasts Congressional spending

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John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the nation's drug czar, was initially dubious of the youth ad campaign, even threatening to end it, but has become a strong supporter.

Is the drug campaign working?

We've had a 19% decline [in drug use] and the President set of goal of 25% [drop by 2007] and while we are on track for that, we're still working to get as low or below what it was in 1992. ... Do I expect it to go to zero? No. But I do not believe there's any inherent reason why this can't get to below the level of drug use we saw by teens and adults in 1992. We are not there.

How big should the campaign be?

Next year it should be $120 million. That's what we asked for.

Would more spending significantly affect results?

We have asked for consistently more money than Congress has given us. I think [denying us more] is a fundamental mistake.... In order [for drug use] to continue to go down and in order to not reverse [progress so far] we need to keep pressure on.

Why was more of a focus put on marijuana?

Of 60% [of drug abusers] over age 12 that need treatment, 7 million individuals, are dependent on marijuana. It's the single biggest cause of treatment need among illegal drugs, more than twice as important the next biggest factor, cocaine. Of that 7 million, 23% are teenagers and we had intake data from the treatment systems indicating more teenagers were seeking treatment for marijuana than for all other illegal drugs combined. And for the first time, more than for alcoholism, which was always more available.

Isn't drug use cyclical, going up and down?

It goes up when you take your eye off the ball. I think the current of cultural self-abuse is an excuse made up by people who don't want to take responsibility for the children who are our responsibility now and will be next year. ... If you are giving them healthy messages, they are healthier. If you encourage them to self-destruction, they are more self-destructive.

Is it realistic to expect advertising to completely deal with the issues or reasons people use drugs?

Can advertising be a substitute for all other things that come to play on young people and adults? No. Is advertising an enormously powerful contributing factor in people choices and behavior? There is no question about that. Otherwise companies, politicians and we wouldn't advertise.

Have you seen any evidence that the campaign's focus on marijuana has affected its believability?

We know from the previous experience that there is a believability issue we have to be wary of. The exaggeration of dangers or threats can destroy the power or effectiveness of messaging. We haven't seen that. We have seen use go down.

If you had $120 million or more, would your job be easier? Could we be done with it?

If we got $120 million would be able to do a better job? Yes. Would we waste money if we got more than that? No. But I wouldn't go so far as to say, that if you did X times 2, 3, 4 the campaign, drug use would go to virtually zero or halfway. There is a limit to how much we can get from this campaign alone.

But we are now below what I believe is an effective level. And I am very chagrined that despite the evidence of progress, despite the obvious history here, [drug use levels] can come back if you don't stay at it. We're about prevention. It is the smartest, the most cost-effective way to do this.

It's time for Congress to wake up and support a program that is working. We believe in accountability. We believe that programs that work ought to be funded. This program works like no other demand-reduction program in terms of the leverage results. There is no excuse for not supporting it except not paying attention.
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