Feature: Bush Drug Budget Cuts for HIDTA, Task Force Grants Look to Be Restored 7/15/05

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In a limited stab at addressing the huge federal budget deficit, the Bush administration this spring announced it was slashing spending for two high-profile but questionably effective federal drug enforcement programs, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program and the Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) program, formerly known as the Byrne law enforcement grant program. But the proposals have run into a buzz saw of well-orchestrated opposition from law enforcement and a bipartisan coalition in Congress, and it now appears both programs will survive.

HIDTA map, from ONDCP
The HIDTA program was introduced in 1990 to target major drug trafficking on the nation's coasts and borders, with the five original HIDTAs set up in the "gateways" of Los Angeles, Houston, New York and New Jersey, South Florida, and the Mexican border. The Baltimore-Washington area became the sixth HIDTA in 1994, and since then, the program has metastized into 28 HIDTAs covering a quarter of the population and including such drug trafficking hot-spots as rural South Dakota and Appalachian West Virginia.

The JAG program, formerly named after Edward Byrne, a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty in 1988, the year it began, funds federal anti-drug task forces around the country with hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Last year, the program was budgeted at $646 million. Under the program, localities kick in one dollar for each three the feds contribute.

With Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head John Walters as point man, the Bush administration 2006 budget sought to eliminate JAG funding outright and to reduce HIDTA funding by more than half, from $226 million this year to $100 next year. It also sought to move the program out of ONDCP and into the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force.

Both programs have come under fire from critics, including some inside the Bush administration. Anti-drug task forces funded by the JAG program have run amok repeatedly, most infamously in Tulia, Texas, but also across the land. Last year alone, there were investigations of task force abuses or misdoings in nine states.

The HIDTA program was cited by the Office of Management and Budget in a study two years ago that found it could not prove that it accomplished anything; the OMB Permformance and Assessment Tool (PART) rated HIDTA as "results not demonstrated." Two months ago, in the midst of the congressional fight over restoring funding for the program, the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste echoed that opinion as it issued a scathing report on waste within the drug czar's office, singling out HIDTA for special mention.

"Designed chiefly to curb drug trafficking across America's borders, the program has become a drug prevention funding free-for-all for power-hungry politicians to bring home the bacon to their districts at the taxpayers' expense, and has decreased drug enforcement in areas where it is critically needed," the group found.

The ONDCP agreed, at least initially. "HIDTA has not been able to demonstrate results," drug czar John Walters told Congress in February.

But under withering political fire from law enforcement and its allies on Capitol Hill, the agency was backing down somewhat by the end of last month. "The whole point here is that people don't doubt the effectiveness of the program," said Jennifer DeVallance, an ONDCP spokeswoman. But while the office had changed its tune on HIDTA's effectiveness, it was still sticking to the Bush budget proposal. "We believe that the program should return to its original mission, and the budget will be sufficient to accomplish its original goals," she told the Baltimore Sun in an article featuring law enforcement complaints about the cuts.

DeVallance and her colleagues at the ONDCP press office failed to return seven Drug War Chronicle calls for comment on the issue in the past three weeks.

"If you are used to receiving something, you don't like to give it up," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens for Government Waste. "The administration was trying to do something reasonable in terms of reducing funding in terms of trying to turn HIDTA back into what it was originally intended to be. But once a federal program expands, it is very difficult to reduce the size of a program. There are more votes in favor of it because more states are getting the money. It doesn't matter what the issue is," he told DRCNet.

Congress is as much to blame as anyone, said Schatz. "There is nothing easier than spending other people's money, and it's members of Congress who have expanded this program's scope and coverage. There is nothing restraining them right now, but even if Congress fails to understand, fiscal conservatives see this makes sense."

"The other question, of course, is the overall effectiveness of the war on drugs. What have you achieved? ONDCP has not even done what it was supposed to do," Schatz added.

But one highly-placed drug law enforcer offered a strong defense of HIDTA, even while conceding that it has suffered from mission creep. "HIDTA probably has migrated from its original purpose, but with the drug problem, especially the proliferation of meth and meth manufacturing across the country, there needs to be a way to assist state and local law enforcement," said Ronald Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition, which represents 43 state narcotics officer associations and some 60,000 narcotics officers. Brooks is also director of the Northern California HIDTA. "There is a feeling sometimes that this is an entitlement, but when we look at the return on investment, state and local partner agencies spend about $40 for every dollar of federal HIDTA money. That's a pretty good leverage of federal dollars," he told DRCNet.

For Brooks, much of HIDTA's value derives from its role in establishing cooperation between the DEA and state and local law enforcement. "HIDTA is just a way to help state, local, and federal law enforcement come together. Anytime you can get law enforcement to participate together like that, it's a heck of a deal," he said. "When I started operating as a narcotics officer, we operated alone, agencies protected their turf and their busts, but with these HIDTAs and multi-jurisdictional task forces bringing law enforcement executives together, we just don't have much of that anymore."

He also tied the HIDTA program to the terrorist threat. "When you look at the 911 Commission report, the biggest complaint was that federal law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the Department of Defense didn't communicate," Brooks said. "That doesn't happen in drug enforcement. Between the task forces and the HIDTAs, we haven't had that problem for 20 years. The Byrne grants and the HIDTA funding incentive collocated commingled task forces -- that's the beauty of it, and that's a tough thing to put a price tag on."

Brooks was confident HIDTA funding will be restored. "We have a letter signed by 57 senators supporting full funding and retaining HIDTA in ONDCP," he said. "Our group sponsored a press conference in the capitol where Sens. Burns (R-MT) and Baucus (D-MT) and House members Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) stood there and said HIDTA will be fully funded and it will stay at ONDCP."

One drug reformer keeping a close eye on Capitol Hill agreed. "Bush was trying to move HIDTA into Justice with less funding, but I don't think that will happen," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It has proven too popular, with Republicans and Democrats alike. It has already been funded by the House, and while the drug czar's office reauthorization bill was just introduced, it has a provision keeping HIDTA within ONDCP. The Senate hasn't dealt with it yet, but they consistently give more money, so I doubt they will cut the program," he told DRCNet.

Brooks voiced concern, however, about the fate of the JAG program. "Byrne has me worried," he said, referring to the program's original name. "It is critically important and affects the entire nation. Byrne and HIDTA are complementary, and our belief, based on a review of our membership around the country, is that the loss of both HIDTA and Byrne funds could wipe out 80% of state and local task forces," he said.

And Byrne had to be not only saved but funded near last year's level of $634 million, Brooks insisted. The Senate has voted to fund it at $625 million, but the House voted a much smaller amount. "The House marked it up at $348 million, but at $348 million we ought to just euthanize it," he said. "We have 179 representatives who are going to sign a letter to Senate-House conference committee conferees urging them to a least meet the Senate side mark."

While it looks like the drug war juggernaut will continue to roll over fiscal restraint and sensible policy moves for another year, Piper, a veteran of Capitol Hill battles, sounded a note of cautious optimism. "The effort to de-fund and move HIDTA doesn't look like it will succeed this year, but this is the first year Bush has tried this. They will probably be back next year and the year after that. If you look at his goal of eliminating the Byrne grants, he's been slowly cutting them back for four years." Indeed, just a few years ago, the Byrne grant program was funded at $1.5 billion.

-- END --
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Issue #395 -- 7/15/05

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


recent blog posts "In the Trenches" activist feed


DRCNet Interview: California Medical Marijuana Provider Bryan Epis | Feature: California's "Treatment Not Jail" Law Faces New Attack from Old Foes | Feature: Bush Drug Budget Cuts for HIDTA, Task Force Grants Look to Be Restored | Feature: Much Ado About Lollipops -- Marijuana-Flavored Candy, Hemp, Politicians, and the Media | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Medical Marijuana: California Activist Facing Federal Prison Time Commits Suicide, Commemorative Vigils Set for Tuesday | Medical Marijuana: ACLU, DPA Threaten to Sue Schwarzenegger Over Suspending California Medical Marijuana Program | Mad Science: House Committee Approves Mycoherbicide Testing in Bid to Wipe Out Drug Crops | Marijuana: Western Pennsylvania Police Chiefs Say Decriminalize It | Sentencing: House Judiciary Committee Head Interferes in Drug Case, Demands Longer Sentence | Search and Seizure: Utah Federal Court Judges Split on Warrantless Doorknob Drug Tests | Drug Raids: Two Unarmed Men Killed in Separate Drug Raids | Latin America: Coca Leader Poised to Become Bolivia's Next President | Announcement: Scholarships Available to Drug Policy Reform Conference in Long Beach This November | Web Scan: Prison Smoking Ban, Patrick Crusade, Licensing Poppies, BlogCritics Book Review | Job Opportunity: Deputy Director of Communications, Drug Policy Alliance, NYC | Short Term Job Opportunity: Marijuana Policy Project Web Site Transition Specialist | Errata: Brazil Harm Reduction | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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