Foreign Policy Briefing No. 26

Declaring an Armistice in the International Drug War

Executive Summary

There is increasing speculation that the Clinton administration may be willing to reconsider some components of Washington’s sacrosanct war on drugs. Prominent drug warriors are certainly worried about that possibility. Former drug czar William Bennett has already condemned the president for failing to take the crusade against illicit drugs seriously. New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal goes even further, warning that “the concept of a war against drugs is in danger of being dismantled,” resulting in “creeping legalization.”[1]

The administration’s actions have thus far provided mixed signals. One of Clinton’s first decisions was to trim the staff of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy—which had ballooned under President Bush to 146 members—by 80 percent. Attorney General Janet Reno has also ordered a review of federal prosecution and sentencing guidelines to determine whether minor drug offenders are being forced to serve excessively lengthy prison terms. Mandatory minimum-sentencing requirements have clogged the prison system, in some cases leading to the perverse result of releasing violent felons early to free cells for drug offenders.

On the other hand, at the same time he reduced the staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the president elevated the director’s post to cabinet rank. His choice for drug czar, New York City police commissioner Lee Brown, flatly rejects suggestions that the government consider legalization as an option, as Clinton himself did during the 1992 campaign. Even more sobering, the $13.04 billion drug-war budget the president presented to Congress in April continued the spending patterns of his predecessors, much to the disappointment of those who looked for tangible evidence of new thinking.

Read the Full Foreign Policy Briefing

Ted Galen Carpenter is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.