Great Drug Debate, 1996’s: And The WINNER Is …

Bill Howard
November 1, 1996

Presidential politics has dealt a new hand to the Education Department’s $466 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program that only last year seemed about to be deep-sixed.

The grant program to fund local prevention efforts to some 40 million school children around the country was to be merged into a new $1 billion Youth Development Community Block Grant being fashioned by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

To minimize opposition, the Kassebaum bill carefully allowed any local community to use their share of the block grant to continue delivering D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), or any other substance abuse or anti-violence program, presented by local police or school employees. (So-so evaluations questioning D.A.R.E.'s long-term effectiveness with youth have prompted city officials in Spokane, Wash., and other states to junk it.)

Thus, most organizations in the youth work field — save those drawing down direct Drug-Free Schools grants — this year were cheering the block grant toward passage, hoping to divvy up funds for improving the availability of after-school services for kids, especially in inner cities. The Clinton White House was neutral. Or said it was. So were most Republicans in Congress and some Democrats.

Pushing hard for the block grant were members of the National Assembly's National Collaboration for Youth led by the YMCA, Girl's Inc. and Camp Fire among others. Lobbying just as hard for retaining Safe and Drug-Free Schools' categorical funding were the 4,000-member Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America and the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD).

Kassebaum, on the eve of retiring from the Senate, was doggedly determined to see the legislation passed — and many youth advocates were optimistic that she would prevail.

But then the presidential election campaign began heating up — and, in September, a sudden reversal of fortune occurred turning the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program — for now — into the Capital's latest sacred cow. Congress let the Youth Development block grant legislation die a quiet death while pumping new life into Safe and Drug-Free Schools with a FY 97 budget that is fatter than ever. What happened?

Waiting to Inhale

It began with Republican challenger Bob Dole's search for issues with which to attack President Clinton. In July, Dole charged teenage drug abuse was "skyrocketing" — and began cranking up commercials bearding Clinton for chopping the White House drug czar's office staff by 83 percent when he took up residence in 1993. The accusation: failure to provide forceful leadership to curtail drug usage, though Clinton had since restored the office and installed drug warrior Barry McCaffrey to head it. Plus, he had upped the federal drug-fighting budget from $13.3 billion in FY 95 to $15.1 billion in FY 97. Details that, of course, went unmentioned in the attack ad.

Instead, Dole's ad ended with a clip from a 1992 MTV forum in which a youth asks Clinton: "If you had to do it over again, would you inhale?"

"Sure, if I could," responds Clinton. "I tried before."

Though spoken in jest, the Dole camp said this showed Clinton was setting a bad example for youth, a cross riff on the "character issue."

More ammunition surfaced a few weeks later from a new National Household Drug Survey by the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research. It found 10.9 percent of youth, or two out of 10, aged 12 to 17 said they had used illegal drugs in the month prior to the survey. This was a jump of 33 percent from 1994 and 105 percent higher than 1992's low. Marijuana, LSD and cocaine use had soared 140 percent or more.

The upswing was believed particularly worrisome to mothers whom Dole — on the wrong end of the gender gap — was desperately trying to court. Clinton was thrown on the defensive as Republicans and then Democrats staged their August nominating conventions.
Clinton's camp fired back with commercials that tried to turn Dole's new anti-drug slogan "Just Don't Do It" against him by listing a number of anti-drug programs that he had voted "no" on over the years.

Hello, Heidi Fleiss

Clinton was shown next to a Drug-Free School sign in an ad pointing out that in 1995 he had vetoed a rescission bill by the GOP-controlled Congress that would have slashed the program's FY 96 budget in half to $237 million. That act of commitment to a program launched in 1986 by Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese — also remembered for trying to kill the Juvenile Justice Act -- took on substance as Congress returned in September and Kassebaum made a last attempt to get her Youth Development block grant enacted.

To help Dole, Republicans stepped up the heat on the youth drug abuse issue. Clinton's lack of "moral leadership" was assailed by Robert C. Bonner, a former federal judge and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the Reagan Administration at a joint hearing of two subcommittees — National Security, International Relations and Criminal Justice and Early Childhood, Youth and Families.

Clinton cut funding for drug interdiction by 50 percent, Bonner charged, and sent a signal to South American suppliers of drugs that the U.S. was not "seriously committed to attacking the drug problem any longer." Whereupon, in a bizarre sidelight of his own on the "moral issue," Bonner flew back to Los Angeles to represent a client — former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss — who was being hauled into court for violating the terms of her bail. She allegedly had failed a drug test that indicated she had been using methamphetamine.

Shortly before the election, Clinton was back on the offensive, saying in an October 19 radio address that Congress should enact legislation to require youth to "pass a drug test as a condition of getting a driver's license."

YDCBG's 'Killers'

Earlier, in hard-nosed negotiations with the White House, Kassebaum's YDCBG bill was rapidly coming apart. Clinton's operatives were insisting on what one Capitol Hill aide called "killers." The biggie: that Drug-Free Schools be dropped from the block grant and preserved as a categorical program. Reluctantly, Kassebaum agreed, hoping to close the hole blown in the program's funding with crime control money. Then she agreed to 15 pages of changes in the bill requested by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The White House came back with a demand that two-thirds of all block grant funds be earmarked for at-risk kids and at-risk neighborhoods and that cities over 250,000 population have their own program boards and individual funding allocations in addition to those of the counties. This would have made local division of monies highly complex, if not hopelessly unmanageable.

Then Kassebaum was hit by an American Civil Liberties Union call. Citing separation of church and state doctrine, the ACLU wanted the bill to deny block grant funds to all religious organizations and churches even though many are integral and essential parts of community youth recreation and service programs. This proved one last too high a hurdle to clear and Kassebaum threw in the towel. Her bill never was brought to a vote by the full House or the Senate.

Drug-Free Schools, meanwhile, emerged a bigger winner in the omnibus appropriations bill passed in the waning hours of the 104th Congress. Its FY 97 budget was bumped to $556 million — up $90 million.

Prospects for the Youth Development block grant next year are iffy. Proponents are looking for a new champion in the Senate to pick up the battle from the departing Kassebaum.

Howard, Bill. "1996’s Great Drug Debate: And The WINNER Is … ."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.