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New US Drug Czar Wants Urgent Focus On Illegal Drug Problem

The new head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is beginning his term pledging to instill a new sense of urgency in the fight against illegal drugs. But not everyone is happy with some of the ideas outlined by incoming DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson.

Asa Hutchinson is a lawyer and former federal prosecutor who gave up his seat in the House of Representatives to accept the top job at the DEA. He gained national recognition two years ago when he was among the Republicans in the House who led efforts to impeach then President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

He now oversees an agency with a $1.5 billion budget and some 9,000 employees around the world, but one that critics charge is still outmaneuvered by the money, influence and the lure of the international drug cartels. "I think one of the most frustrating things I've had to encounter thus far is the frustration that is reflected toward this mission and the sense that perhaps our efforts are not as fruitful as we'd like them to be," he said.

Part of those efforts will be doing more to educate young people about drugs and putting more drug users through treatment rather than just through the legal system. In addition, he wants to give law enforcement the technological tools needed to do battle with drug cartels.

"We can stay ahead of the drug traffickers and I think that's a big challenge when you see them using more whether it's encryption, whether it's the internet or other technological devices," he said.

But he already has critics, including those who would like to see a new overall approach toward drugs, especially marijuana.

"Roughly 70 percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legally available for medical purposes," said Ethan Nadelmann, who heads the group called "", which believes much of the U.S. anti-drug strategy is based on politics and not common sense.

But during his first day on the job, Asa Hutchinson told reporters scientific research has yet to show any medical benefit from smoking marijuana and vowed to enforce federal laws against its use.

"Now if the scientific and medical community come in and continue to study it, we're going to listen to them," Mr. Hutchinson said.

But Mr. Nadelmann points to the use of marijuana by cancer and aids patients who say it eases pain and offsets the effects of treatment. "You look north of our border in Canada where just last week the health minister Alan Rock moved forward with Canada setting up a legitimate marijuana distribution system," he said. "You look at the report that the Institute of Medicine in the United States put out last year, which said that smoked marijuana clearly has medicinal benefits. "If Hutchinson is serious about the science, then medical marijuana becomes legal tomorrow."

Several states do allow marijuana to be grown and used for treatment even though this technically violates federal law.

How will he judge whether he has been a success? The new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration says one measure will be whether he succeeds in reducing drug addition and the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.