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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy," by Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen (2007, State University of New York Press, 268 pp., $27)

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #474)
Politics & Advocacy

There is probably not a single drug reformer alive who, at some point, has not sputtered into his coffee cup upon hearing some inane pronouncement from drug czar John Walters. We know what he is saying is wrong and unjustifiable. Sometimes we even go to the effort of thoroughly debunking one of his outrageous claims. It's not that hard to do, really, but up until now, no one had thoroughly deconstructed the claims made by the Office of National Drug Control Strategy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office), testing them against the norms of science and reason.

That has changed with the recent publication of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics," by Appalachian State University Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Matthew Robinson and Associate Professor of Political Science Renee Scherlen. Since the annual National Drug Control Strategy reports put out by ONDCP form the basis for crafting federal drug policy, this pair of professors decided to systematically put to the test the claims made by ONDCP as a foundation for those policies.

ONDCP misrepresents 'Just Say No' connection, 2003 strategy (graphic appears courtesy Prof. Robinson)
Every federal bureaucracy has to justify its budget, and it does so by setting goals and demonstrating how well it has or has not met those goals. But, as Robinson and Scherlen so admirably demonstrate with example after example of the misleading use of statistics and visual graphics, ONDCP is, in many, many ways, distorting reality to paint a rosier picture of its "successes" in waging the war on drugs. They do so in a calm, deliberate, and understated manner rather than engaging in a partisan attack on a set of policies they clearly feel are a disaster.

In order to gauge the accuracy of ONDCP pronouncements, the authors look at three broad sets of claims made by ONDCP: Claims of success in reducing drug use, claims of success in "healing" America's drug users, and claims of success in disrupting drug markets. Robinson and Scherlen examine the annual National Drug Strategy reports beginning in 2000 and extending through 2005 to look at what ONDCP says it is accomplishing in these three broad areas. These three categories describe what it is ONDCP is supposed to be achieving, but, as the authors so comprehensively illustrate, ONDCP is all too ready to resort to deceptive and misleading information.

Let's take claims of success in reducing drug use, for instance. In the 2001 National Drug Strategy, ONDCP produces a chart that shows a dramatic downward trend in teen drug use in the mid-1980s before remaining essentially stable throughout the 1990s. But since ONDCP and its mandate didn't exist before 1988, the chart is misleading. What it really shows is that throughout ONDCP's tenure, it has failed in its stated goal of reducing teen drug use.

Similarly, in the 2003 National Drug Strategy, in an effort to justify its prevention campaigns, ONDCP sought to show that Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign was effective in reducing teen drug use. But to do so, ONDCP relied solely on data involving 18-to-25-year-olds. Since the "Just Say No" campaign was aimed at kids, using data about young adults is "a selective and inappropriate use of statistics," as Robinson and Scherlen so gently put it.

ONCDP also has the curious habit of mentioning "successes" in one year, but failing to revisit them in following years when the numbers don't back them up. In 2000 and 2001, for example, ONDCP crowed about declining marijuana use, even though national drug surveys failed to back it up except in selective categories. But in the annual reports from 2002 to 2005, with marijuana use remaining steady, ONDCP doesn't make any specific claims regarding rates of marijuana use, nor does it provide easily accessible charts or figures. As Robinson and Scherlen note, "Indeed, it appears ONDCP ignores statistics that point to outcomes counter to the drug war."

Robinson and Scherlen go on to systematically dissect ONDCP claims about reducing drug use, "healing" drug users, and disrupting drug markets. Sometimes, they even find that the claims are justified, but this is rarely the case. What the authors repeatedly demonstrate is that ONDCP is unable or unwilling to accurately report its failures to achieve its goals and is willing and able to resort to statistical chicanery to cover up those failures.

In the final two chapters of the book, Robinson and Scherlen attempt a fair assessment of the drug war and ONDCP's ability to meet its self-imposed drug war goals, and offer a series of recommendations for what a more rational drug policy might look like. For one thing, the authors suggest, ONDCP ought to be either terminated or removed from the White House. For an accurate rendition of the numbers regarding drug use, they must be removed from the hothouse political atmosphere of the White House. Currently, the authors argue, ONDCP acts as a "generator and defender of a given ideology in the drug war."

"Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics" is surprisingly easy to read, and Robinson and Scherlen have done a huge favor not only to critics of current drug policy by compiling this damning critique of ONDCP claims, but also to anyone interested in how data is compiled, presented, and misused by bureaucrats attempting to guard their domains. It should be required reading for members of Congress, though, sadly, that is unlikely to happen.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Along with the lies they use and how they manipulate data to their own tastes. Just as any politician does each and everyday self preservation truth, facts and reality be damned. The fallout is always justifiable even if it amounts to more harm caused than the original things being opposed ever would have on their own.

Congress would not even pass a law requiring them to actually read the laws they themselves make before voting on them for all of us to turn into a new law. If they refuse to even do that we can forget about them reading anything besides campaign speeches and donation check deposit slips.

Fri, 02/23/2007 - 10:56am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As much as many people criticize president Bush for many failing federal policies, we would be well advised to remember that he has his limits. The federal bureaucracy has largely ignored that it exists to serve "us the people" and instead focuse on perpetuating its own existence. In this particular case, the war on drugs becomes the tool to justify the continued payroll of public servants who keep their mouths shut, work with "the system," and keep their eyes on the prize of a cushy retirement package.

This deliberate lack of transparency, productivity and service has been OK so far, but as government services become more and more indispensible and as our culture cries for more efficiency, truth and straightforwardness, change is inevitable. The questions are when and where it will start...

Fri, 02/23/2007 - 4:25pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Reason. Compassion. Justice.
The most trusted man in America," Waiter Cronkite, and John Stossel, co-anchor ofABC's "20/ 20, "join DPA's Executive Director Ethan Nadeimann, Board Chair Ira Glasser, and Board Member Dr. Mathilde Krim, a leading HIV/AIDS researcher and activist, in opposition to the failed war on drugs. More than 60 leading activists and philanthropists turned out in support of the Alliance's work at a New York City benefit last November, hosted by Dr. Krim.2006

Fri, 02/23/2007 - 5:35pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The ONDCP is just another front the government uses to cover thier drug sales.....I sincerely beleive "Big Brother" has been smuggling in and selling illicit drugs all along. Just follow the $$$$$! Who stands to loose the most if drugs were legalized? Surely not you and me.

Sat, 02/24/2007 - 9:31am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

A review of the 2006 Strategy is also found in the book's postscript, and the primary author has also posted a review of the 2007 Strategy on line at:

This shows the most recent shenanigans by ONDCP from February 2007.

Mon, 02/26/2007 - 2:09pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

A previous poster suggests that this should be required reading for every Congressman. Well, that is only 500 copies? Why not send each Congressman a copy and publicize the event by also passing them out to members on the steps of the Capitol or some other prominent location in D.C.?

Fri, 03/09/2007 - 3:17pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

This simple solution makes more common sense, & would probably make the greatest impact, than all the off-hand responses people tend to wish or act on. (whether they blog them here or not)

So, DRCnet & MPP, take some of our donated $$$ & pass 'em out guys!

Make a dent in the armor with this first real fire power publication.

{The big trick will be getting them to actually read it :-) }

Wed, 03/14/2007 - 7:31pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The contents of this book proves my point that the war on drugs is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated by the federal government on it's citizens. It cannot do what it purports to do i.e. to eliminate drug use in this country. Although the politicians finally stopped giving us a date for all this to transpire (apparently they were tired of looking as foolish as they truly are) they would still like us to believe that this miracle (saving the children) is on the way and will be here in the not to distant future. Frankly, only the mentally challenged would believe such horsechit. Unfortunately, their are quite a few citizens who foot the bill on this matter. Whether by being genetically unlucky (a pubic hair away from being braindead) or just plain lazy ( leading to profound ignorance) the general American public is beleaguered by every negative comment the ONDCP, in conjunction with a conspiratory American press, can throw at them. The fact that cannabis is now proven to be an effective pain reliever for peripheral neuropathy caused by HIV was located in your local paper a couple of weeks ago (if it was reported at all) on page 16 in a small inconspicuous column. If they had proof that cannabis caused some painful malady it would be on page 1 as well as network/cable television. This bureaucracy is loaded with cash (thanks to us the taxpayers) and they use that cash to float a bunch of lame brain scenarios such as if you smoke pot you'll forget about the kids or you'll kill someone (anyone remember Reefer Madness?) etc. etc. I'm ashamed of my generation (baby boomers) for buying into the line "this isn't your fathers marijuana" as the pot today is 10, 20. 30 times stronger than the pot smoked in the 60's and 70's. I've smoked some very fine cannabis grown indoors (AK-47, Super Silver Haze, Cinderella 99, etc.) over the past 10 years, but I still believe the four best strains of pot to reach my lungs were all smoked in the mid 70's (Red and Gold Colombian, Thai Stick, Maui Wowie). The average street pot I've seen today is no better than the average street pot I saw in the early and mid 70's, at least after commercial Colombian became the norm for average dope. In any event anything coming from the ONDCP has to be taken with a pound of salt. This is a bureaucracy started with lies. built with lies, and maintained with lies. They are master propagandists especially with an ignorant public. With three quarter of a million pot arrests a year (90% for simple possession) it seems like we are long overdue for some new laws regarding cannabis. Of course, that takes politicians with guts, politicians that will inform the public true facts about the weed not the horsehockey from the ONDCP as well as law enforcement types. We already know their take on the subject (lock um up lock um up lock um up) We already know the only winners with that position are anyone connected with the growth industry of the 21st century, the prison business. Whether it be in building prisons/jails running prisons/jails or supplying prisons/jails there's gold in them thar prisons. Quite a sad commentary for the start of a new century. It's time for a change for that century. It's time for a change.

Thu, 03/15/2007 - 6:30pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Marijuana has caused so much pain is this house, trying to justify it's use does not cut it for me. I woull like toknow of other families that have been lied and decieved. He tells me I am the only one that feels that way.

Sun, 07/29/2007 - 4:36pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Marijuana has not caused me any problems exept for with the law, and my father not aproving it. marijuana doesn't cause any harm besides the illegal trade.

Thu, 02/14/2008 - 2:54pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I think if the government has a reason to make drugs illegal. I've seen friends of mine get into doing drugs, and slowly over the four years of High School I knew them, their reaction time, got slower, their mind, wasn't firing on all cylinders as it used to. So all that bull I've seen ya'll say about how it doesn't hurt anyone, can stick it up yours, because it does. I've never done drugs in my life, and I never will, so any BS about peer pressure can also be stuck up where the sun don't shine, because, if I could resist temptation of fitting in, or whatever, then anyone could. I hate the term, Simple Possession, because in my book it's not simple at all, and I think we should have harsher punishments for drug violaters. No the Government can't and shouldn't lie about what's really going on, but adapt and change plans when one isn't working. Letting drugs become legal won't solve anything, it'll only make things worst, because not only would people who use drugs even though they're illegal, the ones who don't because it is, may be even more tempted, and cause a whole new string of very bad events.

Wed, 07/02/2008 - 8:53pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Do you drink coffee or soda? if so, then you're doing drugs. Caffeine is a drug my friend. Science tells use caffeine is more addictive and has more severe withdrawal symptoms than cannabis. Your last argument is wrong. Many people try and do drugs because there are illegal, it's a thrill, it's exciting, it's 'sticking it to the man'. Ask any teenage, they feel cool drinking alcohol. (which by the way is much much more harmful than cannabis)

Thu, 04/16/2009 - 4:46pm Permalink

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