In a study released this week, "Improving Anti-Drug Budgeting" (http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1262/), the RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center found that federal agencies involved in anti-drug efforts overstated their spending on drug treatment by more than $1 billion. The study also found that some law enforcement agencies' budget numbers are no more than "educated guesses."
According to Patrick Murphy, one of the report's authors, the US Customs Service was a particularly egregious offender.
"I tracked down one budget guy for the Border Patrol and asked how they figured out the drug budget and he told me, 'We made it up,'" Murphy told the Boston Globe. "He said 10% of their budget seemed too low, 20% too high, so they settled on 15%."
The study was commissioned by former drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who, according to the authors, had long been bothered by "soft" figures in the national drug control budget. In a press release, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) said it "asked for the RAND reports because we want the most reliable data" and that it has "used the RAND findings, and will continue to do so, to improve the way drug budgets are presented to Congress and the public."
The RAND study contains no allegations of wrongdoing, but it concluded that "flawed" reporting from different federal agencies made it impossible to know what actual spending levels were. It examined 10 agencies' performance in the Fiscal Year 1998 national drug control budget.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides drug treatment to former servicemen and women, for example, reported spending more than $1.5 billion on medical care for drug addicts. But the RAND study found the actual figure was $1.07 billion -- nearly 1/3 less than the VA reported.
According to RAND's Murphy, the discrepancy arose because, for example, the department counted spending on "heroin addicts who were seeking treatment for a broken arm, not drug treatment."
"If people are serious about spending money on drug treatment, they are going to have to look at the level of services they have been providing, and it's much less than they had thought," Murphy told the Globe.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), another agency reviewed in the study, also came in for criticism. SAMHSA, which annually disburses about $2 billion in drug prevention block grants to the states, collects data from those programs. But, the RAND report said, SAMHSA statistics are a "collection of arbitrary assumptions and rules."
For example, the report said, SAMHSA claims to focus entirely on drug prevention, but some of its block grants are really aimed primarily at alcohol abuse prevention. Similarly, the agency assumes that all funds in its Knowledge Development and Application program are to be included in its anti-drug budget, although those activities cover alcohol, tobacco and prescription and over-the-counter drugs, as well as illicit drugs.
For the RAND study authors, the bottom line was that methodological problems in determining actual anti-drug expenditures were so widespread and systemic that, "handicapped by a 20% margin of error in available resources, the ONDCP Director can neither effectively plan programs to reduce the demand for illicit drugs nor hold agencies accountable for their performance."
But others were less concerned with the drug czar's ability to plan programs than with the over-counting of treatment spending. "I think it's terrible if they are inflating figures that show there's more drug treatment than there actually is," Rep. Joe Moakley (D-MA) told the Boston Globe. "If a guy wants to surrender himself for drug treatment in this country, there are not enough places to go."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who will ask for increased drug treatment funding this year, told the Globe the report would only increase her vigilance.
"We are going to have much stronger oversight to make sure the money is being spent in a cost-effective way to face demand," said Pelosi.