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The Drug War's Cooked Books

February 27, 2003

 

Numbers never lie. Or do they? With government, it's simply a matter of who's keeping the books. Take America's so-called war on drugs, for instance. Last year, Congress earmarked nearly $19 billion—nearly twice what it spent on military operations in Afghanistan—to enforce U.S. drug laws.

This year's totals, however, are remarkably different. According to the White House's 2003 "National Drug Control Strategy," released in February, the Bush Administration will now only spend some $11.2 billion fighting drugs! 

How can this be? Is some part of government actually shrinking? On closer inspection, it's clear that this year's supposed belt-tightening is only illusory. Thanks to new Enron-styled accounting procedures initiated by the White House, America's drug war costs a lot less than it used to—at least on paper.


In a little publicized announcement last year, officials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (a.k.a. the Drug Czar's office) revealed that they had developed a "new methodology" for reporting the federal drug budget—which had grown from less than $2 billion annually in 1982 to $18.8 billion last year. Under this scheme, only funding for agencies involved in so-called "primary" drug war activities is now tabulated in the national anti-drug budget. As a result, more than two-thirds of the agencies included in past years' budgets are conspicuously missing from this year's financial totals!

By far the largest and most startling financial manipulations are within the Department of Justice (DOJ), which reported a reduction of more than $5.5 billion dollars in drug-war related expenses between 2002 and 2003. Remarkably, the majority of costs removed are those associated with the incarceration and care of federal drug prisoners! 

How so? "Based on the criterion that they are associated with the secondary consequences of the government's primary drug law enforcement and investigation activities," such expenses will no longer be tabulated in the federal drug budget, the ONDCP explained.

Other DOJ departments and activities related to drug law enforcement, investigation and prosecution are also deceptively missing from this year's tally. For example, annual funding for INTERPOL, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney's office, the federal "asset forfeiture fund," and community policing are noticeably absent.

Millions of dollars in annual funding for additional agencies previously tabulated in the national drug war budget, such as the Department of Education, have been reduced without explanation, while others—including the Department of Transportation ($594 million in 2002), Department of Interior ($39 million in 2002), and the Department of Agriculture ($29 million)—have been expunged from the books all together.

To make matters even more confusing, the 2003 "National Drug Control Strategy" makes virtually no reference to the White House's new accounting procedures, and manipulates past years' budgets to retroactively reflect the Feds' latest "fuzzy math". As a result, the White House is now claiming that America's war on drugs has never cost more than $11 billion per year, even though the office itself previously recorded surpassing that spending milestone in 1991!  It's the sort of deception that would make George Orwell cringe.

If you're searching for the motivation behind the Drug Czar's deceptive accounting, look no further than the polls. In recent years, nationwide surveys have consistently shown that the majority of Americans believe the drug war's current "do drugs, do time" approach to be ineffective, fiscally costly, and doomed to fail.

When given the alternative, nearly seven out of ten Americans say they support treatment for convicted drug users rather than incarceration. Nevertheless, despite the public's sentiment, the percentage of federal dollars dedicated to drug treatment and education programs has consistently been minuscule compared to those earmarked for enforcement and interdiction.

Until now.

At the same time the White House is concealing billions in drug war related prison and interdiction costs. Investigations of this year's budget by the think-tanks Common Sense for Drug Policy and the Drug Policy Alliance reveal that the Drug Czar's office is inflating their expenditures on drug treatment by including hundreds of millions of dollars in alcohol treatment spending, which by law is specifically excluded from the ONDCP's scope of activities.

As a result, the ONDCP claims that this year's budget allots nearly equal amounts on drug treatment as it does drug enforcement—up dramatically from past years' ratios which favored enforcement nearly two to one—despite making no substantive spending changes.

Ultimately, the goal of all this smoke and mirrors is to create the perception of a kinder, gentler, and less expensive drug war—qualities favored by the American public but seldom (if ever) delivered by federal drug policy. Of course, beneath the clouds it's still business as usual; the only question is: Who's going to report the Feds to the SEC?


 

Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation in Washington, DC, a think-tank which lobbies for the liberalization of marijuana laws. paularmentano@aol.com.


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