guest editorial by Matthew Robinson
As commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama must now oversee our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As President, he is also responsible for another war, one that has gone on much longer and been more costly in terms of dollars spent and lives lost.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is an executive agency in the White House. According to its web site, ONDCP is charged with establishing the policies, priorities, and objectives for all US drug control policy. And Obama is now in charge of ONDCP.
ONDCP's goals include reducing illicit drug use, manufacturing and trafficking of drugs, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences. Research has shown that ONDCP has failed to consistently meet these goals since it was created in November 1988.
propaganda for too long -- ONDCP's National Drug Control Strategy report
Illicit drug use is not down during ONDCP's tenure, drugs are still widely available, and illicit drugs are actually more dangerous now than even during the peak of drug use in 1979. Crime and violence have significantly declined but criminological research shows this is mostly attributable to non-criminal justice factors such as an improved economy and an aging population.
In spite of this, each year when it releases its National Drug Control Strategy, ONDCP continues to "sell" the drug war by saying it is effective, compassionate and balanced, even though it is none of these things. My research has shown that ONDCP has consistently misled Congress and taxpayers about the fact that the drug war has largely failed.
For example, ONDCP focuses almost exclusively on short-term declines in reported use by young people, ignoring increases in some drugs by youth as well as long-term trends and drug use by adults. Further, it claims our nation's drug control policy is balanced even though the budget is clearly tilted in favor of reactive and supply side tactics such as domestic law enforcement and military spending rather than proactive and demand side methods such as prevention and treatment.
Critics of the drug war have pointed out, correctly, that the most effective as well as cost-effective measures are carefully designed and honest prevention messages and well-staffed drug abuse treatment programs. Yet, 65 percent of the FY 2009 drug control budget is intended for the less effective measures of domestic law enforcement, interdiction and international spending, versus only 35 percent for prevention and treatment. And these figures actually underestimate the amount going to reactive drug control strategies for they do not count the tens of billions of dollars spent each year arresting, processing, and punishing drug offenders.
On the night Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for President, he said he would "go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we cannot meet twenty-first century challenges with a twentieth century bureaucracy." ONDCP is a failing agency, one that needs to be completely revamped.
In the 2009 National Drug Control Strategy, ONDCP reports that the Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) scores have been released for more than 20 drug control programs. PART rates a program's purpose, planning, management, and results to determine its effectiveness on a scale from 0 to 100. What ONDCP fails to report are its scores. The scores for results are: 42 (Drug-Free Communities Support Program); 33 (High Intensity Drug trafficking Areas); 11 (Counterdrug Technology transfer Program); 7 (Counterdrug Research & Development); and 6 (Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign). Yes, that is out of 100.
According to ONDCP's stated budget, we spend more than $14 billion each year on national drug control policy; in fact, the true cost is much higher. But one thing is clear -- much of this spending is wasted on ineffective programs. Further, more than $420 million is spent on ONDCP itself, a nontransparent, dishonest executive agency.
Obama claims his administration will be transparent and honest, and that the policies he will pursue will be evidence-based. So here is an exciting possibility for Obama to live up to his word. To do this, he must welcome drug abuse experts to the White House, listen to them, and read their work.
The vast majority of drug abuse experts will tell Obama that the drug war has been a massive failure. We've wasted hundreds of billions of dollars under ONDCP's direction pursuing policies and programs that not only fail to meaningfully reduce the availability and use of illicit drugs but also cost us thousands of lives every year. Continuing to spend money on these policies and programs is like pouring money down a hole. Given the state of the economy, we simply cannot justify staying on this path.
The good news is that even conservatives in Congress should welcome a new path. After all, they probably hate big government more than Obama. And the drug war is big government, running amok and out of control.
Even better news is that more effective alternatives are available, including policies aimed at preventing experimentation with drug use among young people, reducing harms associated with illicit drug use among adults, and reducing drug abuse through public health approaches such as treatment.
The time for change is now. Based on Obama's choice for Director of ONDCP -- Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske -- there is hope for a change in direction. Though Kerlikowske has been in law enforcement for 36 years -- a medical or public health professional might make a better pick -- he is an advocate for community-oriented policing and investing in crime prevention. Kerlikowske opposed a ballot measure in Seattle to make marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority, but he also said it was already a low priority, and marijuana possession arrests by his department have dropped substantially since the measure's enactment. Medical marijuana is legal in Seattle, and the city runs needle exchanges and other programs based on the philosophy of harm reduction. Kerlikowske has not been an outspoken advocate for those programs, but neither has he stood in their way.
For there to be real change in the drug war, Kerlikowske must immediately learn that he has inherited an agency that has consistently failed to achieve its goals and to tell the truth to the American people. If Obama believes in a transparent, honest, evidence-based drug control policy, it will be up to Kerlikowske, once confirmed, to make that a reality.
Matthew Robinson is Professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University. He is the author of nine books including Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics (SUNY Press, 2009).