For decades, it has been almost anything goes when it comes to fulfilling budget requests for federal drug war funding, but the congressional session that ended last month suggested that even sacred cows aren't exempt from the budget ax. Several drug warrior favorites took big hits last month, and drug fighters and drug reformers alike agree that the impact is likely to be significant.
Emboldened by the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget, which called for cuts in federal funding for multi-jurisdictional drug task forces and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, as well as by conservative watchdog groups such as Citizens Against Government Waste, which criticized spending inside the drug czar's office, Congress made significant dents in funding for a number of drug war programs:
"The Byrne grant and the media campaign cuts are the most significant," said Drug Policy Alliance national affairs director and Capitol Hill denizen Bill Piper. "Those Byrne block grants go directly to the states and keep the task forces alive. If that money were to disappear, the states wouldn't be able to afford a lot of their drug war. The more we cut into the federal subsidies for the drug war, the more likely we are to get reform in the states. We've already seen some of that in the last couple years, where Byrne cuts combined with economic recession forced the states to make some tough choices, and some of them reformed their drug laws as a result," he said.
"The cut in the drug czar's media campaign is significant because it is merely a propaganda tool," said Piper. "It's all about influencing voters to reject marijuana law reform and has little to do with reducing youth drug use."
"These are very substantial cuts," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "These are cuts in discretionary funding, where the government is cutting in many areas, and the fact that they are going after drug enforcement programs signals just how serious the federal funding crisis is. These are programs that are popular in the Republican heartland, but they're still being cut," he told DRCNet.
"It is clear that drug policy reform has built effective alliances with conservative groups that recognize the wastefulness of drug war spending," said Sterling. "There may also be a lesson to our movement there: Sometimes other groups can be more effective advancing our cause than we can on our own letterheads," he said.
"Congress gets to play with other peoples' money, and when you're in Congress you get to play Santa Claus 365 days a year, so why are they being Grinches in the drug area in 2005?" Sterling asked. "One reason is that the funds were identified as wasteful by groups who make it their business to highlight wasteful programs. A second reason is it enables Congress to say it is spreading the pain as it cuts student aid, Medicare, and the like."
While Sterling and Piper were cheered by the budget cuts, Northern California HIDTA Director and National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition head Ronald Brooks had a different, gloomier take. "We think there will be significant closures of these multi-jurisdictional drug task forces," said Brooks. "In Missouri, they are telling me that if they had lost all the Byrne funding they would have had to close down 22 of 26 task forces. In Texas, Gov. Perry has announced that he will use the remaining money for border enforcement, no more on the drug task forces. Three years ago, the Byrne and local law enforcement block grants were at $1.1 billion and now they're down to $416 million. That is a significant cut at a time when state and local law enforcement is already suffering the effects of a rugged economy and working with less locally budgeted money than before."
Piper wasn't so sure Byrne grant cuts would sound the death knell for the drug task forces. "They've been screaming that they will have to shut down, but that remains to be seen. They could survive on state money or asset forfeiture, or the states could eliminate other programs," he mused. "But I suspect the states will be more likely to consider reform and consider eliminating the task forces, which exist almost solely because of federal money and which are wreaking havoc around the country."
If the drug task forces vanish or are significantly reduced, that will have an impact on federal law enforcement and prosecutions as well, Brooks said. "As the task forces dry up and blow away, there are going to be far fewer state and local resources to develop cases for referral to US Attorneys and federal agencies, primarily DEA, but also AFT, FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement," he said. "In this country, 97% of all drug prosecutions and arrests are state and local. Of the 3% that are federal cases, the vast majority are referred out of these state and local task forces."
The federal budget cuts come on top of cuts at the state and local level, Brooks said. "We've already seen dramatic cuts in drug enforcement resources. In California, for example, the San Francisco PD, the LAPD, the LA sheriffs -- all have reduced the number of narcotics investigators. The Oakland police chief told me 90% of their murders are drug- or gang-related, and they don't have the money for a single narcotics officer on the street," Brooks related. "As a result, we will see an increase in the ability of drug distribution organizations to operate with impunity."
"The cuts in the Byrne grants will hurt police departments and prosecutors' offices that have been getting those funds," said Sterling. "Either the states and localities will redirect money to those programs, or those agencies will have to cut back those programs. This is an opportunity for reformers to meet with local and state government officials to talk about what kinds of smarter, more efficient policing strategies should be adopted in the face of these cutbacks."
But it ain't over until it's over, Sterling warned, raising the specter of renewed funding for the task forces. "They are facing cutbacks and it is certainly conceivable that they will mobilize to get a supplemental appropriation increase. I can see police unions trying to mobilize groups like the National Association of County Officials and the League of Cities to get the funds restored," he said. "And there is an election in November. If Congress is voting on a supplemental appropriation late in the summer, that will be a consideration. And if it were an up and down vote on restoring the spending, that would be a much tougher vote for individual representatives to consider."