The man President George Bush has nominated to lead the fight against drugs is unfit for office because of his views on race and crime, according to civil rights and drug reform groups. The claims are likely to lead to a clash next Tuesday when John Walters, Mr Bush's choice as "drug czar" has his Senate nomination hearing.
There is concern that Mr Walters represents the reactionary wing of the drugs debate in that he favors more frequent use of jail for users, and increased military spending in Latin America. His nomination hearing in front of the Senate judiciary committee on September 11 represents the latest clash over the president's attempts to appoint hardliners to key posts.
A coalition of civil rights and drug reform groups this week launched a critical analysis of Mr Walters' policies, saying that they represented a step backwards. The Coalition for Compassionate Leadership on Drug Policy expressed concern that he appeared ignorant of the realities of the drugs world.
"It's truly disturbing to have our nation's nominee for the top drug policy spot be a throwback to a more intolerant and reactionary way of thinking," said Vincent Schiraldi of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, one of the groups in the coalition, which advocates a greater concentration of efforts on prevention and treatment.
At the heart of the concerns expressed about Mr Walters are remarks he made in May when he told the Weekly Standard: "What really drives the battle against law enforcement and punishment is not a commitment to treatment, but the widely held view that, first, we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs; second, drug and other criminal sentences are too long and harsh, and third, the criminal justice system is unjustly punishing young black men. These are among the great urban myths of our time."
The coalition says these are far from being urban myths, and that the concern about prison numbers and race are backed up by official statistics.
Of the 1,559,100 arrests for drug law violations in 1998, 78.8% were for possession of drugs and more than 100,000 people were in state or federal prison solely because of this. The average federal sentence for a drug offense in 1997 was 78 months, more than twice the average sentence for manslaughter (30 months).
According to the coalition, whites and blacks use drugs at equal rates, but black men are admitted to state prisons for drug offenses at a rate that is 13.4 times that of whites, despite the fact that seven times more whites than blacks use drugs.
A letter sent by a number of groups separate from the coalition, asking senators to vote against Mr Walters' nomination, states: "His views on race and crime make him unfit for a position that requires sensitivity to racial fairness." Hilary Shelton, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the concerns were being expressed to the the Senate judiciary committee.
Mr Walters has described the current step-up of US involvement in military operations in Colombia as "cheap and effective", and has urged an intensification of the policy.
A White House spokeswoman described Mr Walters as a "respected and experienced leader in drug policy. She added: "The White House is committed to a balanced approach toward the problem of drug abuse in the United States, with emphasis both on demand reduction and prevention."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001