Feature: Fireworks at Book Forum in Washington as "Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics" Authors Confront ONDCP Official

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The libertarian Cato Institute was the scene of drug policy confrontation last Thursday, as a leading Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) official and two of ONDCP's harshest academic critics traded barbs and flung statistics over ONDCP's goals, whether it achieves them, and how it handles -- or mishandles -- the data.

Dr. David Murray, chief scientist for ONDCP, was on the hot seat as Appalachian State University professors Matthew Robinson (criminal justice) and Renee Scherlen (political science), the authors of "Lies, Damned, Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy," subjected his agency to a sustained attack over what they called the misuse and manipulation of data used to evaluate whether ONDCP is doing its job.

Explaining that he and Scherlen had analyzed consecutive annual National Drug Control Strategies, the document where ONDCP sets its goals and measures its success at attaining them, Robinson went immediately on the offensive. "Our analysis suggests that the drug strategy is not an honest document, but really little more than a political document that does little more than reinforce the dominant ideology of the drug war and maintain the status quo," he said.

He and Scherlen then spent the next 30 or 40 minutes showing just how ONDCP manipulated data, changed goals, conflated statistics, and otherwise jimmied the numbers on drug use, on the cost of the drug war, and on the success of US drug policy in Latin America. "ONDCP shifts targets in its budgets and national strategies, making it impossible to evaluate how well it is meeting its drug war goals," said Robinson. "It focuses on good news such as short term declines and ignores the bad news, it selectively presents statistics favorable to its case, and sometimes makes claims that are just plain false."

"When it comes to statistics, they cook the books," Scherlen summarized.

"This is not Cato's finest hour," retorted Murray, after sitting through the sustained attack. "We've seen an attack on the integrity of me, my boss, and ONDCP. Wow," he exclaimed. "This is a devastating indictment... if it were true, but it's not. Instead, it's a series of confusions, misunderstandings, and ignorance on the part of the researchers, which they project onto us as our perfidy and willful deception."

Murray attacked Robinson and Scherlen for including drug use data from the 1990s and suggested that ONDCP and its current chief, John Walters, should not be blamed for what he described as the failures of the Clinton administration. "It wasn't this administration setting goals and being accountable then. We have seen progress since Walters took over in 2001," he said, citing recent downward trends in youth drug use.

Murray also made the unusual claim that rising emergency room mentions and drug-related deaths are "not current measures of drug use going up or down," but instead reflect decisions years earlier to commence drug use.

He also attacked the notion that ending drug prohibition would reduce harm, saying the idea that drug laws, not drugs, were the problem was "a delusion that grows out of late night dorm room discussions in college." But again, he used some unusual arguments. "Look at Mexico, the death and destruction of the drug trade," he argued, "is it the laws that made this happen or that these substances are profoundly dangerous?" A few breaths later, Murray sneered, "Do you think people wouldn't beat up their wives when they're stoned?" if drugs were legal.

Rhetorical excess aside, Murray also made the strongest prohibitionist argument: "We're saving lives and reducing social pathologies; when we diminish substance abuse, we make a difference. We have to try to reduce supply and demand."

It was a good event, said Timothy Lynch, director of Cato's Criminal Justice Project, who hosted the discussion. "Normally, you get turned down by ONDCP, so we were pleased they decided to send a representative," said Lynch. "This was the first time I've seen this guy. He came in and his presentation started out strong, but as it went on he started turning people off and became condescending and patronizing. I don't think he was winning anyone over to his position."

Listening to the discussion should prove useful for others, too. "This will be a good resource for people preparing for drug czar Walters or Murray coming to their areas," said Lynch. "They can hear the arguments and prepare their rebuttals."

"The authors did a pretty good job outlining a number of problems with how data is presented by ONDCP," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Murray's response was not really very direct, and he engaged in ad hominem attacks. Still, he's a very effective PR person, he has a great voice and good presence, and he sounds very authoritative."

One thing that struck Sterling, he said, was Murray's change of title. "He used to be a senior policy analyst, but now he has the title of chief scientist. That's sounds very credible and authoritative, but for someone who is essentially a spokesperson and propagandist to take that title is a PR move," Sterling said.

"I respect Dr. Murray a lot for coming to these events and putting himself in situation where he is totally outnumbered," said Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "Of course, I disagree with 99% of what he says, but it's good that he is coming out to talk."

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." From Murray's presence and response to the critique, it appears we are now somewhere between stages two and three.

Watch or listen to the forum in the Cato web site archive, here.

(DRCNet continues to offer this book as a membership premium -- read more here.)

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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One more sign of desperation

The fiscal writing is on the wall. The GAO has recommended that ONDCP salaries be cut until the agency can prove in a concrete fashion that the policies they promote actually have an negative effect upon illegal drug trafficking. The bureaucratic knives are out, and being sharpened for the inevitable round of budget appropriations; as the amount of money shrinks, thanks to the necessity for funding the Iraq War causing domestic programs to be further 'streamlined', the competition for what is left becomes fiercer and more internecine. For the first time, the ONDCP is facing the necessity of actually trying to justify its' existence. Hence Dr. Murray's presence at a public forum when previously his organization sought to maintain an air of being above such things. Expect to see more of this in the future...

Murray's a tool

Just watch the ONDCP ads to see if they care about accuracy and integrity. Proof that the ONDCP doesn't care about the truth no matter how many the lie they defend has hurt, but what do you expect from the "chief scientist"? He just wants to keep his job. Prohibition didn't work before and it doesn't work now, neither do wars on nouns.

Murray's a tool

I just got done listening to the 1 1/2 hour CATO presentation, and feel no more admiring of the ONDCP than I was previously. The good Dr. Murray is a silver tongued orator, but he appears to be completely out of touch with reality. As the old saying goes, "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure!".
He earned his paycheck...

Wrong drug

It looks like someone was talking about the wrong drug. A few breaths later, Murray sneered, "Do you think people wouldn't beat up their wives when they're stoned?" if drugs were legal. That drug is already legal and it's called alcohol. I've never met anyone who beat up his wife while on cannabis. But, I guess stoned could mean any drug according to Murray. Perhaps Murray has first hand experience with beating his wife while stoned and this was a Freudian slip?

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