Federal Budget: Drug Czar's Ad Campaign Takes a Hit, DC Can Do Needle Exchange, But More Funding for Law Enforcement

The Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP) National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign took a major hit as Congress finalized the fiscal year 2008 budget this week, and the District of Columbia won the right to spend its own money on needle exchange programs, but when it comes to drug war law enforcement, Congress still doesn't know how to say no. Instead, it funded increases in some programs and restored Bush administration budget cuts in others.

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less of this next year
The media campaign, with its TV ads featuring teens smoking pot and then shooting their friends or driving over little girls on bicycles, among others, saw its budget slashed from $99 million this year to $60 million next year -- less than half the $130 million requested by the Bush administration.

"It's a mixed bag for sure," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "They cut the anti-marijuana commercials, but at the same time they gave a lot of money to law enforcement. There was some trimming around the edges, but Congress didn't do anything about fundamentally altering the course of the drug war."

The Justice Department budget was the source of much, but not all, of the federal anti-drug law enforcement funding, including:

  • $2.1 billion for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a $138 million increase over 2007, and $53 million more than the Bush administration asked for.
  • $2.7 billion in state and local law enforcement crime prevention grants, including the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which fund the legion of local multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces. That's $179 million less than in 2007, but the Bush administration had asked for only about half that.
  • $587 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, $45.4 million more than last year. The Bush administration had proposed cutting the program to nearly zero.

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US Capitol, Senate side
But the appropriations bill that covers ONDCP also had some money for law enforcement, namely $230 million for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, $5.3 million more than this year and $10 million more than the Bush administration requested. That program, which coordinates federal, state, and local anti-drug law enforcement efforts continues to be funded despite criticism from taxpayer groups.

"It seemed all year that the Democrats would try to restore some of the cuts from previous years, and they did," said DPA's Piper. "On the one hand, the Democrats say they want to quit locking up so many people, but at the same time, they're passing out money like candy to law enforcement, and that only perpetuates the problem," he added, citing the Justice Policy Institute's recent report showing that the more money that goes to law enforcement, the more people get arrested for drug offenses, and the greater the proportion of black and brown people locked up for drug offenses.

The funding cut for ONDCP's widely ridiculed media campaign was a bright spot for DPA, which, along with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has been lobbying for the past three years to kill the program. The two groups were joined on the Hill this year by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and all of them hailed the at least partial victory on media campaign funding.

In repeated federal studies, the media campaign has been found to be ineffective -- and sometimes even perverse, in that some studies have found exposure to the campaign make teen drug use more, not less, likely. Among those are a series of reports by Westat commissioned by the National Institutes on Drug Abuse and a Government Accountability Office review of the Westat studies.

"It's $60 million more than the program should be getting, but it is a significant reduction, and we're really happy with it," said Tom Angell, SSDP government relations director. "The federally funded evaluation shows it actually causes teens to use more drugs, not less. In the most objective analysis, the program is simply not working. We shouldn't be spending a dime of taxpayer money on that," he said.

"That's a step in the right direction," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for MPP. "The drug czar's ad campaigns have been largely based on misinformation and exaggeration, and anything that reduces that is a good thing. Since the drug czar has shown he has no interest in doing appropriate and factual drug education, the ideal funding level would be zero, but we're getting closer," he said.

"At its height, the ad campaign was getting $200 million a year, and now we've got it down to $60 million," said DPA's Piper. "Thankfully, Rep. Serrano and the other Democrats had the courage to cut this stupid and ineffective campaign. We've been lobbying to kill it outright, but it's really hard just to cut a program, let alone kill it in one fell swoop. We have to do it in baby steps," he said.

Congressional concern over ONDCP media operations also manifested itself in another section of the appropriations bill that restricts it and other federal agencies from producing video news releases (designed as "prepackaged news stories" for local TV news programs) unless they are clearly labeled as being funded by that agency. In a GAO report examining ONDCP video news releases, the government watchdog agency qualified them as "covert propaganda."

Also as part of the omnibus appropriations bill, the District of Columbia has won the right to spend its own money on needle exchange programs, which it had been barred from doing by congressional conservatives. But Congress did not go so far as to undo the 1998 rider authored by then drug warrior Rep. Bob Barr that blocked the District from enacting a medical marijuana law approved by the voters.

All in all, as Piper said, "a mixed bag." Drug reformers win a handful of battles, but the drug war juggernaut continues full ahead and federal money rains down on drug war law enforcement like a never-ending shower. And those federal funds seed the state and local drug war machine where most of the action takes place.

"Congress needs to stop paying the states to do bad things," said Piper. "The drug war perpetuates itself because the states don't have to pay the full costs; the feds subsidize it, so the states have little incentive to reform. But the vast majority of drug arrests are by the states, and they should have to pay the full cost for police and prisons and all those expenses associated with the drug war. Until that happens, it's going to be hard to get reform at the state level; that's why it's so sad the Democrats are undoing some of those cuts that Bush made."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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