How do you feel about the war on drugs? That may depend a bit on how you feel about the never-ending drama of Robert Downey Jr. Already facing a court date this week for a drug-related arrest in November, Downey was busted again last week when police found him lurking after midnight in an alleyway behind a motel in Culver City, Calif. He was cited for suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance. More serious charges, if any, will await the results of a urine test administered that night. Downey, who was immediately fired from Ally McBeal, quickly checked himself into a rehab clinic, a step that may or may not help him much when he stands before a judge yet again.
So let's agree that the drug-infatuated actor is a loser. But is he a loser who needs medical help to break out of his addiction? Or is he one who ought to get more hard time--he has already done a year behind bars--because that's the only way to get some users to take rehab seriously? Is he a threat only to himself? Or is he the carrier of an infection that could spread if we don't lock him away? In short, should we treat him or trash him?
Twenty years after the war on drugs got under way in earnest, the U.S. remains far from a consensus on that question. Even now, no one knows quite where George W. Bush stands on it. Signs are growing, however, that he sides more with the hardliners, even as states are backing away from the "lock-'em-up" policies they adopted in the past. Just last week the President told TIME that addiction "does require treatment, and I think we ought to look at all sentencing laws." But one day earlier, word leaked that Bush plans to nominate as his "drug czar" a man who has emphasized what he calls the "moral lesson" of law enforcement. John Walters, 49, who was chief deputy to former czar William Bennett in the first Bush Administration, believes nonviolent drug offenders should be diverted to treatment on first and second offenses. But he thinks only fear of jail time, be it weeks or months, will get some hard-core addicts (Robert Downey Jr.) into treatment and keep them there.
Bennett describes Walters as "a hard-liner on all fronts" but says he is "not somebody who's ignorant of the effectiveness of good treatment and education." Walters already served briefly as drug czar after Bennett departed but quit in 1993, sharply criticizing then President Bill Clinton for offering "no moral leadership or encouragement" in the fight against drugs.
Some 460,000 Americans are behind bars for drug offenses--a tenfold increase over 1980. (In 1996, referring to violent offenders, Walters said, "I am against the discussion...that there are too many people in jail.") Two weeks ago, in another sign that his heart is with the hard-liners, President Bush asked Congress to allocate $4.7 billion to the federal-prison system, projecting a 32% increase in inmates over the next five years, a jump largely fueled by mandatory drug sentences. Some $40 billion a year is already being spent by federal and state governments to prosecute and imprison drug offenders and to try to stem the flow of narcotics across the border. Drug use is down during the past 20 years, which is one important marker of success. But drugs are cheaper, purer and more plentiful than ever. More than three-quarters of Americans tell pollsters that the war on drugs is failing.