The Forgotten Drug War

The Forgotten Drug War

Has the once ballyhooed U.S. "war on drugs" been put on the policy backburner? Many experts think it has, and also that this might be a good thing.

April 6, 2006 11:22 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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As the Bush administration has turned its attention to more immediate wars—terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan—focus has naturally shifted away from the war on drugs. Hence, many experts are saying the mandate for counter-narcotics enforcement has become muddled. Money spent to disrupt supply chains is not spent effectively, they say, because new suppliers will always pop up so long as domestic demand exists in the United States. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin are still widely available in the United States—which accounts for 60 percent of the world’s demand for illegal drugs—and at lower prices than in previous decades. Ideological loggerheads have also emerged where goals of promoting democracy and cracking down on drug production have opposed one another, most notably in Latin America.

What is the current status of the U.S. war on drugs?

The war continues with mixed results. On the positive side, earlier this year the U.S. State Department announced that a massive spraying and uprooting campaign had cut Colombia’s coca crop by a third to a half. Meanwhile, high-profile busts are ubiquitous. In late March 2006, for example, American agents broke up the "Virgin Mary" drug ring, a major operation responsible for smuggling large quantities of cocaine from Mexico into the United States. As Foreign Policy’s editor Moisés Naím put it in his recent book, Illicit, "[a] week does not go by without news of a spectacular drug seizure in Florida, California, or elsewhere."

But experts point to a long list of problems with the drug war and charge that funding for the war may be wasted. "Cracking down on drug supply is mostly useless until we learn to squeeze demand," says Mark Kleiman, a professor at UCLA who runs the university’s Drug Policy Analysis Program. A prime example is that of America’s crackdown on Colombia. Experts say that despite the progress that has been made within Colombia’s borders, little effect has been had on the overall drug war—due to the persistence of American demand, other countries, namely Peru and Bolivia, have moved to fill the supply vacuum.

How much does the United States spend fighting the war on drugs?

Next year’s budget is expected to be around $12.7 billion, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (whose director is commonly referred to as the U.S. "drug czar"). Roughly 65 percent of this sum will be spent on "source control," or supply control, with the remaining 35 percent going toward treatment and prevention (about twice as much is spent on treatment than prevention). Of the funds aimed at disrupting the supply market, $721.5 million will be spent in the Andean region, $297.4 million for counter-narcotic programs in Afghanistan, and $152.4 million targeted at customs and border-patrol operations.

Are these expenditures up?

Overall, American spending on drug control has increased 34.4 percent since 2001. According to ONDCP statistics, since 2001 there has been a 136.7 percent increase in U.S. spending abroad and a 20.9 percent decrease in spending on domestic prevention programs, due to budgetary constraints forced by profligacy overseas. Experts say these numbers reflect a return to a "1980s-style" model, where the bulk of spending was focused on international and interdiction programs. In 2001, the supply/demand split in spending was almost even, with the supply side receiving 52.8 percent of funds.

But experts caution that long-term statistical patterns can be misleading, both because spending is spread among so many agencies and because statistics have not been kept in a consistent manner. In the early 2000s, for example, funds spent by the U.S. military on drug control were removed from the total figure of what the United States spends annually on the drug war. This made it seem as if significant spending cuts were being made, experts say, though in real terms, cuts were far more meager. Even the government has admitted the unreliability of its drug war statistics. In November 2005, the Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan investigative branch of Congress, described the data used to evaluate progress in the drug war as "problematic" and said there was an absolute "absence of adequate, reliable data on illicit drug prices and use."

Which agencies oversee American anti-drug funds?

The U.S. counter-narcotics budget is spread among several federal agencies. Funds for prevention and treatment are allocated to the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Transportation, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the ONDCP. Funds targeting drug suppliers, meanwhile, go to the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice—which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), State, Treasury, and Defense.

Given the large number of agencies involved, experts say the result is often unsynchronized or inconsistent policy. "Historically, the State Department, more than the DEA, was given blame for failed efforts in other countries," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a Washington-based lobby group. "But now, I think what’s happening is almost nobody takes responsibility. If opium production is booming in Afghanistan, who does Congress blame? Nobody."

Why else are drug-war expenditures controversial?

Again, many experts agree that until domestic demand in the United States for illicit drugs decreases, economics will govern and the money the United States spends on eradication and source control will simply be wasted. "As long as there’s a demand, there will be a supply," says John Carnevale, a former senior adviser to four U.S. drug czars. "People will figure out how to get this stuff in because it’s so profitable." Still, few experts are calling to cut all foreign spending. "It’s a balance," Carnevale adds. "Interdiction and international programs are things we have to do. You can’t just open your borders. But to assume that these two things will break down the drug program is incredibly naïve."

How has the drug war affected other U.S. foreign-policy objectives?

The United States allocates funding to border control programs and to eradication efforts abroad under the umbrella of drug-control resources. The major focuses of foreign spending are in the Andean region of South America, which is a primary source of coca, and in Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of poppies, the plant used to make heroin. Broader foreign policy objectives have often encompassed narcotics control. For example, U.S. efforts to fight terrorism in Afghanistan have required a simultaneous push to eradicate Afghan poppy crops, the proceeds from which had been used to fund terrorist groups including the Taliban.

Experts say that control efforts have met with mixed success when considered as specific case scenarios, but represent an overwhelming failure taken as a whole. "You see a growing number of people saying that money spent on the interdiction side is just foolish," says Nadelmann. The trouble lies in what is often referred to as the "push-down, pop-up effect," or squeezing one end of a balloon. Due to basic economic factors, eradications of crops in specific regions have almost never translated into long-term drug war successes.

For example, in the 1990s, Peru and Bolivia were considered success stories of the drug war, while Colombia was perceived as a major threat. The United States successfully pressured Colombia’s government to launch a program of aerially spraying and uprooting coca crops. Notable reductions were made, but these successes had a perverse effect. Even as the United States launched a multibillion dollar interdiction campaign in Colombia, coca growers in neighboring Peru and Bolivia quickly popped up to fill the supply void. Not only did regional production not decline, but there were unforeseen political consequences in the countries where coca growth was resurgent. Evo Morales, a former coca grower and a populist, rallied the support of Bolivia’s coca growers and won Bolivia’s recent presidential elections on a pro-coca platform (though not pro-cocaine—coca can be used to produce a mildly intoxicating chew and can be processed into a flour substitute). Ullanta Humala, a Peruvian nationalist who has pledged to legalize the coca crop, is currently leading opinion polls in the run-up to Peru’s April 9 elections.

What are some other drug-war concerns?

Another growing concern is that countries with little to lose could make drug trafficking an official government-run business. Some experts worry that this is already happening in North Korea, and in the lawless region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where well-established communities exist that subsist almost exclusively on opium profits. But experts also question the value of devoting more funds to dampening the drug trade in these regions. Again, economics reigns, they say, and it is likely that other producers would move to fill in the market vacuum.

Overall, is the United States winning the war on drugs?

It’s unclear, experts say. One problem is the lack of reliable metrics for gauging the success of the drug war. "We’ve shut our eyes to the issue," Carnevale says. "We’re completely unable to assess the contribution of law enforcement to international efforts. We’ve also shut our eyes to performance accountability. Any claims that accountability is being used to drive this budget are spurious." Officials at the DEA respond that cutting drug war funding could open the floodgates for existing cartels to expand their production, though they acknowledge that long-term progress has been slow in coming, and that stifling American demand for narcotics is an important element of the war.

Is the U.S. war on drugs losing steam?

Yes, to an extent. But given a lack of meaningful long-term statistics, general financial accountability, and also the presumed lack of long-term effectiveness of interdiction efforts, many experts say this might not be a bad thing. "The Bush administration has indeed put drugs on the backburner, which is mostly where they belong," says Kleiman. "Current policies are no smarter than past policies, but they aren’t quite as loud." In other words, better to spend less money than to simply waste it. Nadelmann agrees that the issue has been put on the backburner. "It’s a question of whether that’s a good or bad thing," he says. "Given that what works is politically impossible, and what’s politically possible is destructive, the fact that the drug war now gets less attention is probably a good thing."

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