In a time when the federal government faces multi-trillion dollar budget deficits and is warning of belt-tightening all around, the federal anti-drug budget will increase by 4.7% this fiscal year to $12.468 billion dollars. John Walters, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) presented the new budget proposal Monday. After two decades of ever increasing federal spending on the war on drugs, the FY 2005 anti-drug budget is largely more of the same -- a small cut here, an increase there, always expanding overall, but its essential contours unchanged -- as always, law enforcement eats up most of the federal billions actually spent to impose prohibition.
But you wouldn't know it from the Bush administration's drug budget. Because of budgetary legerdemain beginning with last year's drug budget, the FY 2005 numbers both seriously undercount the actual costs of federal drug law enforcement and distort the ratio of spending on demand reduction versus law enforcement. Last year, ONDCP "restructured" its budget, but according to John Walsh, the Washington Office on Latin America's (http://www.wola.org) senior associate for the Andes and Drug Policy, that restructuring resulted in a significant distortion of both the total anti-drug budget and spending priorities within that budget by simply removing the more than $4 billion spent each year to prosecute, try, and imprison federal drug offenders. More on that below, but first the numbers.
When broken down by federal government department, the anti-drug budget looks like this:
The budget also pencils in $70 million to expand the drug courts program, a $32 million increase over FY 2004, as well as a number of initiatives aimed at interdiction and tightening US borders, including $11.9 million of the $54 million allocated for Remote Video Systems along the Canadian border.
When it comes to the ratio between spending on demand reduction (prevention and treatment) and supply reduction (domestic law enforcement, interdiction and crop eradication), the FY 2005 budget shows a nearly even split, with demand-side programs taking up 45% of the budget, compared to 55% for supply reduction programs. And herein lies the rub. By removing the costs of prosecuting, trying, and imprisoning federal drug law offenders from the anti-drug budget, as it did beginning last year, ONDCP seriously distorts both spending levels and priorities. Those costs came to more than $4 billion the last time they were counted, in the FY 2003 budget.
"By removing Bureau of Prison and other drug prosecution spending from the budget, a budget that is really two-thirds law enforcement and supply reduction now looks like it is balanced between demand reduction and enforcement," said WOLA's Walsh, who analyzed last year's anti-drug budget for the Federation of American Scientists' Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin. "This was intended to end the debate about the imbalance between the demand and the supply sides -- they can say, 'Look, we have a budget that is balanced,'" he told DRCNet. "But that's because it fails to include money that is still being spent, and presumably at a higher rate. It is a distortion. People who rely on the drug budget to gauge what we're spending won't get an accurate picture."
ONDCP argued in its budget summary last year that the restructuring of the budget was to make it more useful in carrying out policy analysis of the relative costs and benefits of drug control, Walsh said. "But if you don't include all the spending, how can you do that? Instead of making the budget more useful, this has made it useless. It is ridiculous; this doesn't pass the laugh test."
Walsh is correct, said Peter Reuter, coauthor of "Drug War Heresies" and professor of public affairs and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, who hastened to add that he had worked with Walsh on parts of the analysis. "The change is absolutely mystifying to me," he told DRCNet. "I can't invent an argument that says arresting drug sellers and users is supply reduction, but locking them up is just a response to their use and not part of supply or demand reduction."
ONDCP has reconstituted the budget in a way that "is analytically difficult to justify," Reuter said. But there may be other justifications, he hinted. "It's hard not to believe there was a political intent to create a more balanced looking drug budget," he said.
And ONDCP is doing it retroactively as well. While the federal drug budget has for the past 20 years hewed closely to the one-third for demand reduction, two-thirds for law enforcement ratio, any evidence of that has disappeared from the federal drug budget like an out-of-favor Soviet apparatchik from a Communist Party photo. In its table on "Historical Drug Control Funding by Function, 1996-2005," the budget summary simply erases Bureau of Prisons and other prosecution-related funding as if it never happened. Suddenly, we find that in 1996 demand reduction spending was 52.6% of the total anti-drug budget. But it wasn't so then, and merely erasing the figures doesn't make it so now. ONDCP does note that "consistent with the restructured budget, ONDCP has adjusted the amounts reported for the years 1996-2002," but it only points to the BYRNE law enforcement grant program and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's impaired driving program, not to Bureau of Prisons spending.
"This is the new model budget," said Walsh. "It eliminates the things they eliminated last year, and it is pretty clear future budgets would give no hint of the things that have been excised. And sure enough, if you didn't already know about it, you would have no reason to see in this budget anything about the Bureau of Prisons, the federal court system, the US Marshals, the whole structure related to processing people once they're arrested. Most of them are arrested, and most of those go to prison. This is a major aspect of federal drug control, and it has vanished from the budget."
And speaking of vanishing, that is what has happened to the drug budget as a political issue, said Reuter. "Ten or fifteen years ago, there was an active debate about how to reshape the drug policy budget, but now I am hardly aware of any discussion of the topic," he said. "The drug budget has disappeared as a way of debating drug policy."
The Bush administration is happy with the budget, and the Democrats are not making an issue of it, Reuter said. "Why would Walters and Bush have made any change?" Reuter asked. "It's their budget. If you think that US drug policy is fundamentally wrong, there is an argument for change, but there is no political driver to carry this forward," he said.
Visit http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/policy/budgetsum04/ to read the FY 2005 federal drug budget and related documents.
Visit http://www.fas.org/drugs/ to find out more about the Federation of American Scientists' Drug Policy Project and/or to subscribe to the FAS Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin online.
Visit http://www.fas.org/drugs/issue10.htm#1 to read Walsh's report, "Fuzzy Logic: Why the White House Drug Control Budget Doesn't Add Up."