WASHINGTON — Casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot," Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates told a Senate hearing Wednesday on the first anniversary of the Bush Administration's war on drugs.
Gates, discussing his comment to the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his harsh assessment was aimed at those "who blast some pot on a casual basis" despite the illegality of the act, as opposed to hard-core addicts who are driven by their physical need for illicit drugs.
Gates, whose remark to lawmakers was reminiscent of a 1972 proposal by former Los Angeles Police Chief Edward M. Davis to hang airline hijackers at the airport, said in an interview outside the hearing that he was not being facetious.
"We're in a war," Gates said, and even casual drug use "is treason."
In Southern California, reaction to Gates' remarks was mixed.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, an advocate of stronger penalties against casual drug users, said he agreed with Gates in concept, although not necessarily with his "colorful choice of language."
Los Angeles Police Lt. George V. Aliano, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said that, although police officers generally agree that casual drug users should be dealt with more severely, Gates' comments were overly "severe," if not "inhuman," and reflected an attitude of "giving up" on drug users.
"There are a lot of police officers, like other people in society, whose children, brothers or sisters, may be casual users," he said. "And none of us want to see that (shooting) happen to them. We haven't given up on our people."
Ramona Ripston, director of the ACLU of Southern California, said that Gates' proposed "smoke a joint, lose your life" approach to law enforcement was "absolutely absurd" and "shows a disrespect for the entire judicial process."
In a briefing earlier in the day to mark the anniversary of the anti-drug campaign, President Bush cited "clear signs of progress" in the fight against narcotics but said that "the crisis is far from over."
Federal drug czar William J. Bennett, citing various measures of improvement, said the nation's drug scourge "is no longer getting worse, and in some very significant respects is now getting better--not victory, but success."
But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who led the drive to establish Bennett's office, coupled praise for the Administration's efforts to build strong public disapproval of drug use with what he sees as shortcomings in the program.
Although casual drug use "appears to be plummeting," Biden told the hearing, the nation "probably has more weekly cocaine users today than ever (and) the hard-core addict count is up and appears to continue to rise."
Biden, citing a Judiciary Committee staff assessment of the first-year effort, said the Administration has significantly under-counted weekly, or "frequent," cocaine users, contending the number is close to 2.4 million--three times the Administration's estimate.
Bennett cited several accomplishments--disruption of drug cartel operations in Latin America, indications of cocaine supply shortages such as sharply rising wholesale prices and declining purity, and a drop in cocaine-related admissions to hospital emergency rooms.
"Last year's hopeless cause is this year's revived opportunity for victory," Bennett said.
In a report on leading drug indicators issued by Bennett's office, he conceded that not all trends are encouraging. By most measures, "violent crime in the United States continues unabated," the report said, while noting that the relationship between drugs and crime "is ambiguous and complex."
"Although the wave of recent homicides across the country is commonly associated with the drug trade, many law enforcement experts speculate that rising murder rates in many cities might be due, paradoxically, to a shrinking drug market--a situation in which gangs and dealers battle one another over restricted turf and fewer customers," the paper stated.
Bennett, in his oral comments, characterized the phenomenon as "one criminal drug organization blowing another away."
Biden, whose committee has held 25 hearings on the Administration's drug strategy, suggested improvements in three areas. He said more emphasis should be placed on combatting hard-core addiction, efforts should be expanded to move the economies of Andean cocaine-growing countries away from their "drug dependency" and more support should be provided for drug education.
Biden said the Administration's strategy aims primarily at casual drug use, "but it is hard-core users that cause our crime problems and are responsible for a tremendous percentage of drug distribution."
"Getting these addicts off the street--into drug treatment or into jail, whichever is appropriate--is the only answer," Biden said.
The panel's staff report found that, over the last year, fewer than one in 10 pregnant addicts received treatment, about 300,000 more "drug babies" were born, fewer than one in seven imprisoned addicts was treated and 3.6 million criminal drug users were released without having been treated.