LA JOLLA — A panel of former White House drug czars admitted Thursday to a series of oversights in forging national drug policy but said that overall they believe each made a difference in the war against drugs.
Among the trends the former high-level advisers said were missed were the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the dangers posed by marijuana and other so-called soft drugs, and the importance of 12-step recovery programs in treatment.
The comments came during a daylong discussion of White House drug abuse policy sponsored by UC San Diego and Scripps Memorial Hospitals. The panel discussion brought together for the first time six drug chiefs who served under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.
The current head of the Office of Federal Drug Control Policy, Lee Brown, did not attend. Fred Garcia, deputy director of the drug policy office, filled in for him.
Dr. Jerome H. Jaffee, the first so-called drug czar, headed the war on drugs in the Nixon Administration. He is credited with winning the fight to legitimize methadone as a widely available treatment for heroin addiction. Experts also generally credit him with setting up programs that reduced heroin use among Vietnam veterans in the early and mid-1970s.
But Jaffee told a group of about 300 drug experts, administrators and students that he did not anticipate the big rise in cocaine use.
As difficult as stemming the tide of heroin abuse was, Jaffee said, it was nothing on the scale of the cocaine problem that followed.
"We were fortunate, perhaps, that the major problem we faced was heroin," Jaffee said.
Dr. Robert L. DuPont, who headed drug policy under Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford from 1973-75, continued the fight against heroin. But he said that he and other drug experts were fooled by marijuana.
DuPont said activist parents of children who were using marijuana forced the national drug office to acknowledge the addictive properties of the drug. Scientists, DuPont said, "totally blew it with marijuana."
"I was going along with the Establishment view that this was not a problem," DuPont said.
DuPont, along with several other speakers, said that drug experts in general did not immediately realize the value of 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. "The biggest mistake I made was underestimating the full dimension of the addiction recovery movement," DuPont said.
Dr. Peter Bourne, director of drug abuse policy in 1977 and 1978 under Jimmy Carter, said he believes that efforts by national drug authorities may have also contributed to the spread of crack cocaine. Bourne said that zealous efforts by drug officials to stem the tide of cocaine may have inadvertently triggered the switch to crack, a cheaper and more available form of the drug.
"I am not sure that our own policies didn't contribute to the spread of crack cocaine," Bourne said.
But generally, the former drug chiefs said they believe they made a positive contribution.
They noted the reduction in the use of heroin and cocaine in the late 1980s and efforts at such things as making the public aware of the dangers in soft drugs and the abuse of prescription drugs. Several said they believed they helped turn around the perceptions that developed during the 1980s that so-called recreational drugs, such as cocaine, were safe.
Several of the former drug czars said that they were alarmed by trends that began in the 1980s that saw greater emphasis being placed on drug enforcement policies and less on drug treatment.
Dr. Herbert Kleber, who headed the drug control policy office under Bush, said funding for treatment has "really been a bipartisan failure. We didn't ask for enough and Congress gave us even less."
For the current Administration, Garcia said that President Clinton is re-emphasizing drug treatment and education as a way of combatting drug abuse. He agreed with other speakers that there has been a tapering off of cocaine and heroin use but he said that in the 1990s drug abuse appears to be growing.
"I am very concerned about the rising numbers," Garcia told the group meeting in an auditorium at Scripps. "We may have a new generation of young people coming of age who either are not hearing the prevention message or are not heeding the message."