MARGARET WARNER: The Drug Enforcement Administration has a new chief. Asa Hutchinson was named by President Bush, and sworn in earlier this month. He's a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, who served as a member of the house Judiciary Committee and was one of the House managers during the Senate impeachment trial of former President Clinton. Before going to Congress, he served as U.S. Attorney in Arkansas, and practiced law.
He's taking the helm of an agency created in the early 1970's to be the chief federal law enforcement arm of the fight against drugs. The DEA is part of the Justice Department, with 9,000 employees and a $1.5 billion budget.
And Asa Hutchinson joins me now. Welcome to the program.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Good to be with you.
MARGARET WARNER: You were re-elected for a third term in Congress last November. Your party is in the majority. Why would you leave that and take this incredibly tough job?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, it surprised me too. First of all, the President asked me. President Bush believes in this issue, and he asked me to take charge of this. And I was delighted to respond to the President. But I've been a federal prosecutor. I've worked with the DEA, I've been concerned as a parent, as a community leader on the drug issues. I think it's critically important to our nation's future. So I took this challenge and it certainly is a challenge.
MARGARET WARNER: As you know, a lot of Americans think the drug war is fruitless. There was a poll... First of all, the movie "Traffic" kind of dramatized that. Secondly there was a poll last February by the Pew Center saying three out of four Americans think America's losing the drug war. Are they wrong?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I think it's important to realize how important this effort is for our country. It is not easy. And anybody who has a simplistic solution to this, I think, is misguided. It's very tough. But I think there are some important points. First of all, we need to continue making it a risk for drug dealers to sell drugs because they harm and they kill people. And that's the law enforcement side.We have to put a risk in there for them doing business.
Secondly, we've got to work with our young people to make good decisions in their life choices that drugs harm them, they destroy their future, and they prevent any success that they might have to a large extent. Then finally those people who make a mistake, we need to try to rehabilitate them. And I think that's the direction that we need to go in our country. Beyond that, we need to look at new ideas -- certainly we need to do that. But what we are doing certainly makes a difference in terms of saving lives and keeping young people or trying to put them on the right track.
MARGARET WARNER: But is there evidence that this drug war that we've been engaged in for 30 years in this stepped-up way is working in some tangible way?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, let's take cocaine. In the 1980s when I was U.S. Attorney, it was a growing problem. It was a struggle for everyone. It developed into crack-cocaine. In the last 15 years, cocaine usage has been reduced by 75 percent. That's four million Americans fewer that are using cocaine occasionally than they did 15 years - and obviously... That's a huge success -- huge success. It shows that we can change attitudes and some of the things that we do work. Now we have a problem with club drugs. We've got methamphetamine; we've got other challenges out there -- with seat belts or cigarettes -- we can change public attitudes if we have a consistency in our approach and we have that balanced approach that the President wants.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, as you said, the enforcement side is the side you're at least charged with looking at. Let's look first internationally. What's the state of cooperation with a lot of the drug-producing countries? Again, the U.S. has been working on that for twenty-five/thirty years.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, there's some challenges there. But, you know, the biggest concern to the United States is what's coming through Mexico and from South America with Colombia. And we have reason for greater hope because of President Vicente Fox and his hatred of drugs and his desire....
MARGARET WARNER: In Mexico.
ASA HUTCHINSON: … to cooperate. In Mexico, precisely. And so there's some good signs there that we might make some progress. Obviously there's structural difficulties that have to be overcome and challenges in Mexico. In Colombia, we have... We're probably cooperating more than ever before. Just the other day, we seized $35 million in cash, the largest seizure ever, and that's a big hit to the drug dealers, $35 million.
MARGARET WARNER: In both of these countries, first of all under former President Clinton this plan Colombia was launched -- you voted for it as a Congressman. More than a billion dollars to help the Colombian law enforcement go after traffickers and rebels. Is there evidence that that is in any way slowing the flow of drugs to this country?
ASA HUTCHINSON: I can't say that the supply is being reduced at this point. I don't think anybody can make that claim. But it's a six-year plan, first of all, and we're just starting that. And I think that we should not confuse ourselves that the reason that that is important is that you have a struggling democracy being challenged by the rebel forces that are funded by the drug trade to a large extent. We want to help that democracy survive.
I hope there are some side benefits for the United States by reducing that supply. There is evidence that we're hitting them hard with that $35 million seizure, with the coca eradication program that is having some success. There are signs of success but there are still a lot of drugs coming into the country.
MARGARET WARNER: Then in terms of cooperation with Mexico, as you said, President Fox and President Bush avowed greater cooperation. I think you're already sharing information -- but the concern has been in the past that Mexican law enforcement was corrupt, was involved with the traffickers. How confident are you that that's not still a problem even as you embark on this greater cooperation?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, it still is a problem because even though you have leadership at the top that wants to have a change of direction, you still have some institutional problems. And so what we're doing and what the Mexican government is doing is starting to create some vetted units, which the officers have been polygraphed, they've been drug tested. And so there's a reduced chance of corruption. We're assisting in the training. In fact, our unit at Quantico is doing some training of those agents. And so that helps us, gives us some insurance that we know who we're working with and have a greater level of confidence.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about here at home? Again, there has been concern that both in sentencing... That we have many, many, many millions of people now in prison or in the correction system, many for drug offenses, and that perhaps it's been too harsh. I think again the same survey showed that a big majority of Americans thinks that at least nonviolent drug use should be treated as a disease not as a crime. What's your view of that?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, drug use, in my view, is a crime. It's a violation of the law. Simple drug possession is a violation of the law. At the same time, I think it is appropriate that we look at options for nonviolent drug users such as drug courts that have intensive drug testing. There's accountability there, long-term rehabilitation. They have a better chance of success of changing their direction in life.
MARGARET WARNER: Explaining that a drug court essentially lets you be sentenced to rehab versus sentenced to prison.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Correct. A prison sentence hanging over your head but you can go to rehab usually for a year. And that's a much better chance of success versus a 30-day rehabilitation period. And so I think it's fair to look at those. I'm very supportive of drug courts. I was in Congress. I will continue to be. Those that are incarcerated in the federal system anyway, I believe only 5 percent are for simple possession. The rest of the drug offenses are for trafficking. So the states are a little bit higher. Many times those were plea- bargained down to possession. But it's fair to look at those and say can drug courts do a better job here for the nonviolent users.
MARGARET WARNER: There's also of course great concern about sentencing disparities particularly with these mandatory minimums. I think Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois pointed out at your confirmation hearing that only 13 percent of drug users are believed to be African-American - they are, I don't know, more than 30 percent of the arrests, more than 50 percent of those sentenced. Should something be done about that and if so what, what can you do about it?
ASA HUTCHINSON: That mandatory minimum five years kicks in for a small amount of crack cocaine was imposed because of the huge number of deaths caused by crack cocaine. And so Congress did the right thing. But I think Congress also created a safety valve so that if there was some extraordinary circumstances, they could opt out of that. There is a disparity, as you mentioned, Margaret, between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. That needs to be closed. That needs to be diminished because there is an appearance and some reality of unfairness there. So I hope that that can be closed.
MARGARET WARNER: Explaining that crack cocaine in general has been more used in the African American community and powder cocaine, which is treated more leniently, in the white community.
ASA HUTCHINSON: That's correct. That's where the disparity is right now.
MARGARET WARNER: What about marijuana use? There has been, as you know, some eight states now have voted for initiatives that permit the medical use of marijuana. Even though that's a federal crime. How aggressive are you going to be prosecuting doctors and patients who turn to that?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, the most important thing is that we don't lose the debate on drugs in our country over marijuana. Whenever you look at cocaine, you look at heroine, methamphetamine that is destroying so many lives. That's getting a lot of attention as it should be. On the marijuana side it is illegal and it is harmful. And there's not any scientific or medical evidence that would support the medical use. There is not any consensus in that direction.
No one wants to deprive an elderly or a patient of pain medication. If it's legitimate pain medication I think we would all support that, but the medical community and the scientific community has said that is not legitimate pain medication that is needed for that purpose -- smoking marijuana. And so it is still a violation of federal law. I'll be working with the Attorney General to determine the specific strategy to deal with that issue in light of the federal and state conflict. But the signal to our young people is we don't want to confuse them by saying, well, it's okay -- because it is illegal and it is harmful for them to use that marijuana.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying doctors in these states should be on notice that they may be prosecuted by the federal government?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I think that it's important that we recognize that it is illegal. It is still a violation of federal law and I don't want to... You know, there's not a legitimate medical need that Congress has dictated for marijuana, and the Supreme Court has said that was very appropriate and upheld that distinction. You know, we want to deal with this carefully and thoughtfully and so we're working out exactly how this should be dealt with from a law enforcement standpoint.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Asa Hutchinson, thanks very much and good luck on your new job.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Thank you.