ONDCP’s Lipsticked Pig

Last February, the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last wrote an unfortunate (if familiar) defense of drug prohibition, dubiously titled “Winning the Drug War: America may be doing it quietly, but it’s happening nonetheless.”

The article reads like dozens of drug war cheerleader articles from the last thirty-five years, claiming that “victory” over illicit drugs is just off the horizon – we need just a little more funding, a little more commitment, and perhaps a bit more wiggle room when it comes to those niggling civil liberties.

Much of Last’s piece seems to have come straight from Office of National Drug Control Policy and DEA press releases, both of which have a history of presenting a rather distorted view of reality (consider ONDCP’s attempt to link recreational drug use to terrorism, for example, of that the DEA to this day claims on its website that alcohol prohibition “worked”).

In any case, to see one example of just how fleeting drug war “victories” can be, consider Last’s claims about decreases in world coca supply, allegedly due to ONDCP’s efforts to spray the Colombian countryside with herbicide:

Earlier this month, a U.S.-government sponsored survey found that contrary to claims from U.S. Drug Czar John Walters, coca production in Colombia is much more widespread and diversified than previously believed (note that in the article, Walters says Colombia’s civil war is “funded by cocaine profits,” ignoring the fact that it’s cocaine’s prohibition in the western world that makes it such a lucrative crop in the first place). Not only that, but coca production is spreading to Bolivia and Peru, too.

After that survey, federal government agencies dealing with Latin America piled on, accusing the ONDCP of “cherry picking” data and generally ignoring reality in its attempt to win support for its drug interdiction efforts. Last week, Walters was taken to the woodshed by Sen. Charles Grassley, hardly a proponent for reforming the drug laws, for his statistical fudging. Grassley’s criticism led to this wonderful lead from Reuters:

The U.S. drug czar has been challenged to explain disputed statistics underlying a string of rosy reports on progress in cutting the flow of cocaine from South America, one of which prompted an expert to liken the official numbers to “lipstick on a pig.”

Criticism of Walters, ONDCP, and U.S. overseas drug policy didn’t end there:

Neither aerial spraying nor stepped-up efforts to intercept cocaine shipped to the U.S. by land or sea have made a dent on the drug’s easy availability in the U.S.. And apart from temporary spikes, its price has declined steadily since 1979, according to several studies of the illicit market.

[…]

“How does ONDCP reconcile the apparent disparity in the information being reported about cultivation and cocaine price/purity with the trends in cocaine consumption as reported in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health?” the letter asked.

According to that survey, cocaine is so easily available that, on average, 2,700 Americans are trying it for the first time every day.

Survey data show that the number of first-time users has run at around one million a year from 2000 to 2004. Figures for 2005, due to be released later this year, are not expected to show a significant change.

Experts say that statistics on any illegal drug’s first time use are important to track trends - and the trend shows no significant change.

That survey comes just a couple of years after a Rand Corporation study in Latin America that drew the same conclusions. The Rand study was actually originally commissioned by ONDCP, though Walters’ office then did it all it could to downplay the results when they came back unfavorable to U.S. policy. The UPI obtained a leaked copy of the report in December 2004, and noted:

Over the last 25 years U.S. policy has tried to attack the war on drugs from a supply-side perspective.

[…]

However, the attempted siphoning of the supply side has lowered street prices and increased the number of incarcerated drug offenders, driving up government spending, without significantly reducing the amount of drug flow, the study’s findings show.

Data compiled by WOLA show that since 1981 the retail price for 2 grams of cocaine went from $544.59 to $106.54 in 2003. Retail heroin prices mirrored the decline in cocaine prices, falling from $1,974.49 to $361.95 during the period.

[…]

The number of incarcerated drug offenders rose from 45,272 to 480,519 from 1981 to 2002, and government spending on overseas supply control rose from $373.9 million to $3.6 billion from 1981 to 2004.

Overall, government spending on supply control and the price of cocaine and heroin have had negatively correlated trends, with the price of cocaine decreasing by 32 percent and spending rising by almost 10 percent.

In other words, the drug war is worse than just an affront to civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, an enormous waste of money, a needless antagonist in our relations with Latin America, and a drain on our criminal justice system – as if all of that weren’t bad enough.

It’s not working, either.