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Signs of drug-war shift

Efforts to end a grant program could indicate a change in the administration's approach.

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Evidence is beginning to build that the approach to the war on drugs in the United States could be changing - by shifting attention away from small-time drug dealers and individual users toward major drug traffickers.

The nation's drug czar, for one, has alluded to changes in thinking. "Break the business," said John Walters at a congressional hearing earlier this year. "Don't break generation after generation [of poor, minority young men], is what we're going for."

Another sign of a shift involves the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which since 1988 has earmarked federal money for local communities to use in the war on drugs. Many have said the program's structure has been flawed since its inception, and now, President Bush is proposing the elimination of the program by next year - though this budget cut is still being fought in Congress.

Short of the program's elimination, at least two moves are afoot to address Byrne's problems. The Texas Legislature has passed a bill that places strict limits on the drug task forces created under the program. And Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) of Texas introduced a bill this week in the US House of Representatives that would prohibit states from spending Byrne grant money on drug task forces unless they adopt laws that prevent people from being convicted solely on the word of an informant or law-enforcement officer.

In all, these steps could portend larger changes in the war on drugs. "For so long, the federal government has focused on arresting a lot of low-level drug offenders instead of on stopping drugs from coming into the country or on terrorism," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. "But I think they are getting smarter and realizing that they can't arrest their way out of it."

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