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When he arrived at the Drug Enforcement Administration in August, Asa
Hutchinson said he wanted to raise the profile of the agency.

Three months into his tenure he appears to be doing just that, in ways that
have brought both praise and criticism upon the Arkansan.

Hutchinson, a former congressman from Fort Smith, has crafted a role for
himself as a self-described "ambassador" on drug-fighting. He trumpets
successful busts and extraditions of drug figures, and publicly defends the
government's drug policies.

His willingness to mix it up with DEA critics has won praise at the same
time he is being criticized for involvement in controversial decisions to
crack down on medical marijuana distribution and assisted suicide.

Hutchinson's style is strikingly different than his predecessors, who
observers say shielded themselves from public scrutiny.

Like Hutchinson, they were presidential appointees, but none of them served
in Congress or had much experience handling the media.

DEA critics approve of Hutchinson's willingness to debate drug policy,
citing two occasions this fall where he faced off in public forums with New
Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who favors legalizing marijuana.

"It's good that he's open to engaging in debate. It allows the public to
hear both sides," said Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense of Drug
Policy, a Washington group which favors drug legalization.

"He's the first DEA administrator I can recall that's willing to debate
these issues," Zeese said. "Most have refused to debate."

As he did as a congressman, Hutchinson has emphasized outreach to those he
considers his constituents -- DEA field agents and local law enforcement
officials. He has created a DEA newsletter and travels weekly to regional
offices to meet employees.

"We make some extraordinary cases here and I'm going out and putting an
exclamation point on their work," Hutchinson said this week during an
interview in his 12th floor office across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va.

For his seeming openness, Hutchinson is still subject to criticism by those
who say they have seen little evidence the government is winning the drug war.

Drawing particular fire was the decision that led DEA agents in October to
raid a community-supported medical marijuana lab in Los Angeles.

The operation came five months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled marijuana
is to be considered an illegal drug even when used for medicinal purposes.

The ruling was a setback for states like California whose voters had
approved marijuana as a relief for pain and nausea among the ill.

"The single most controversial thing he has done at the DEA has been the
bust of the medical marijuana lab," said Ethan Nadelman, executive director
of the New York-based Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation.

"My guess is what Hutchinson and (Attorney General John) Ashcroft are doing
is testing the waters on this issue, possibly to start doing the same thing
in Maine and Oregon," Nadelman said.

Similarly, groups raised objections to the government's decision this month
to arrest doctors in Oregon for prescribing drugs to facilitate death. The
Justice Department's ruling essentially reverses a 1997 Oregon law that
permits assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

Hutchinson says enforcement of the federal ban on assisted suicide has been
a long-held DEA policy, but one that the Clinton administration barred. He
called the DEA's drug raids an agency responsibility even though critics
have charged resources should be better spent to counter terrorism.

"Just because we're carrying out our responsibilities does not mean it's a
priority," Hutchinson said.

As have all federal law enforcement agencies since Sept. 11, the DEA has
shifted resources to combat what President Bush called the new war on

Hutchinson is in contact weekly with Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller
and other top administration officials .

"It's been a real curve ball to me. You get over here knowing what the DEA
counter-narcotic mission is and all of a sudden you have to balance all
counterterrorism concerns in the country," Hutchinson said

DEA agents are reviewing old case files in search for connections between
drug smugglers and terrorists. Agency intelligence personnel are sharing
sensitive information with the FBI. Drug investigations now are viewed as
possible terrorism cases.

"As we go out and interview drug informants we have to recognize that they
also may have information on counterterrorism that could help us with
preventive measures," Hutchinson said.

Reaction to the DEA's emerging narco-terrorism role has been mixed. It is
supported by groups that favor reducing worldwide drug trafficking but
opposed by organizations that favor drug legalization.

"The shift of DEA resources to what are greater threats to the country and
the specific focus on the nexus of terrorism and counter narco-terrorism is
the best place for the DEA to be," said Brad Jansen, deputy director of the
Center for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation, a
conservative think tank.

Overseas the DEA is pumping resources into the Afghan region, training
national police in Uzbekistan, Turkestan and Pakistan, countries through
which smugglers take drugs from Afghanistan, Hutchinson said.

To some, the drug war in Afghanistan is doomed to fail based on what some
say is the U.S. government's losing battle to end illegal drug trafficking
in South America.

"We've done that for 30 years and the result of every international
interdiction of the drug trade has been more drugs, new drug trafficking
resources. It just makes the problem worse," Zeese said. "The only way to
stop terrorism is to end prohibition, so it's not illegal."

Hutchinson defends the government's involvement in both South America and
Asia, saying the drug lords and smugglers breed a culture of illegality
that can foster terrorists.

"I think we see the greater international connection than ever before,"
Hutchinson said. "When the Taliban falls we have the advantage to make a
lasting impact in that region."

Newshawk: Cannabis News - marijuana, hemp, and cannabis news
Pubdate: Mon, 26 Nov 2001
Source: Pine Bluff Commercial (AR)
Copyright: 2001 Donrey Media Group
Contact: letters@pbcommercial.com
Website: Pine Bluff Commercial: Local & World News, Sports & Entertainment in Pine Bluff, AR
Details: Overload Warning
Author: Samantha Young, Donrey Washington Bureau
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