Wish Upon a Czar

More than a year ago, just before he was elected to a third term, Mayor Wellington Webb pledged that within six months, he would appoint a "drug czar" who would oversee the city's battle against illegal substance abuse.

The March 31, 1999, promise was part of a sweeping plan suggested by a thirty-member drug strategy commission composed of drug-treatment providers, law-enforcement officials, health-care experts and community leaders who had been meeting for more than a year, and it was received with much fanfare and official harrumphing.

Other proposals within the plan included talking with Denver schools about using drug-sniffing dogs, increasing the number of substance-abuse counselors in middle schools, raising the amount of funding for treatment programs, creating a second city drug court, tracking who is using which drugs where and starting an anti-drug media campaign.

The drug czar, or "drug-strategy coordinator," as the position is officially called, would follow through on these proposals, chair a drug-abuse advisory council, coordinate educators, police and drug-treatment providers and raise money for the anti-drug effort and to pay for the new position itself.

"In no way did we say we were establishing this position because Denver has a horrible drug problem. Every city has a drug problem," says Flavia Lewis, the executive director of the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and a member of the committee. "We were looking at it as an organize in one place all the substance-abuse information in the city." While Denver's drug problem wasn't necessarily better or worse than any other city's, Lewis and the other commission members hoped that their solutions would be innovative. And as far as city officials knew, Denver would be the only municipality in the country to have its own drug czar.

Webb was easily re-elected in May, and his self-imposed six-month deadline for appointing a drug czar quietly slid by on September 1. Although he reiterated his interest in filling the job during his September 15 presentation of the city's official budget for 2000, as of this week, Webb still hadn't appointed anyone.

"The drug czar has been delayed," says mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson. "It's something we still consider a priority, but it hasn't happened yet. It's something we'd like to get done sooner rather than later. I know we've been saying that for a year, but there have been a lot of other issues and projects going on that have pushed it to the side."

In addition, the mayor is now considering whether he wants the drug czar to be an appointed member of his cabinet -- as he had originally intended -- or simply a "career service position," meaning that the job would be advertised and opened up to an application process. "At this point, it's still up in the air," Hudson says -- even though a few weeks ago, the mayor told manager of safety Butch Montoya that "he wants to move forward as quickly as possible."

Tracy Howard, who is one of Montoya's two deputy managers, says his office has received a number of applications in the last year, mostly from people living in Colorado, and his staff is scheduling interviews and putting together an interview panel. "There have been some applicants from law enforcement and others in the criminal-justice system and some from outside it. The commission looked at a multidisciplinary approach, including education, treatment, enforcement and the courts and wants someone who can bring all of that together."

But nothing can be done until Webb makes up his mind, Howard says. "If it's a career service position, we would need to advertise it, and applicants would have to go through the testing process. If it's a position that is appointed, all we need to do is put together our panel and make a recommendation to the mayor."

The job would pay $73,000 a year, including salary and benefits, and would require an additional $23,000 in supplies and furniture, Howard says. "One of the things we've been struggling with is where we are going to house that person. If we house them off-site, we'd hire clerical support for them, too."

Lewis says she had nearly forgotten about the drug czar until a few weeks ago, when she heard that a colleague had submitted a resumé. "I think it was a very positive move, and I am certainly supportive of it," she says.

The point of having a drug czar is debatable, however, especially since White House drug czar General Barry McCaffrey has taken so much criticism for failing to substantially curb the import or use of illegal drugs in the United States (national lawmakers of both parties have repeatedly questioned the worth of the office).

But Hudson says Webb believes it's needed, and Tracy agrees. "I don't know if it will have an impact right away," Tracy says, "but I think there would be some real value to it."

Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, who served on the drug strategy committee, also thinks a drug czar is a good idea. "I still believe it's something the community could benefit from," he says. "Part of it has to do with my sense that to really attack the drug issue, you need to attack the demand side as well as the supply side, and you do that with a whole host of ways -- like drug-free workplace protocols and treatment opportunities for people not in the criminal justice system. It's critical that we do this." Ritter pointed out that felony drug cases making their way through his office had more than doubled between 1993 and 1998, from about 1,000 to about 2,300.

Bruce Mendelson, a researcher in the alcohol- and drug-abuse division of the Colorado Department of Human Services, supports the idea of a drug czar but says statistics can be deceiving.

On the positive side, he says, state statistics tell him that drug use among the general population has declined significantly in the last twenty years. For instance, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine use all dropped between 1979 and 1995, according to state surveys. On the negative side, however, "you still have a substantial drug problem and hardcore drug users are getting into trouble with increasing frequency."

So even though fewer people are abusing drugs, the people who are abusing them put a heavy burden on the legal and health-care systems -- for example, the Denver County Jail, where 43 percent of arrestees sampled in 1998 tested positive for cocaine (up from 27 percent in 1990), or area hospital emergency rooms, where 66 people out of every 100,000 said they had cocaine in their systems in 1998 (up from 39.2 in 1990), and the morgue, where there were 26.5 cocaine-related deaths per one million people recorded in 1998 (up from 7.6 in 1990).

"The problem has not gone away," Mendelson says. "Drugs are still readily available, and although I don't think new abusers are being added to the population as quickly as they were in the '70s and '80s, you can never let your guard down. You always need to keep vigilant in terms of prevention."

Tracy says his department is hoping to have "something done" in terms of hiring a drug czar by late spring, now that the mayor has given the go-ahead, but Hudson didn't want to put a deadline on it. "On any given day, this office has hundreds of projects going on," he says. "Trying to fit it into reality has just been delayed."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes

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