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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)

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(We reprint our widely-read book review of three weeks ago. Please click here to order a copy through our latest membership offer.)

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 article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Prohibition's Hidden Virtue?

I love to toke, and I'll do it to my dying day; weird thing, though, it was its legal status that got me interested enough to check it out, in the first place.
Had it been legal, I wouldn't have bothered.

It should be required reading for members of Congress.

I'd be happy if they would read the bills they sign into law, though, sadly, that is unlikely to happen.

Everybody's doing it . . .

Recreational drugs can't get any more popular than they are now, so prohibition isn't needed any more.

Prohibition turned me On!!!

Like the first poster I thank Prohibition for bringi dope to my attention ata time I was really getting into booze. the law worked out well for me. kinda ironic....


Poor Harry J must be spinning in the grave. If it wasn't for him the phrase "recreational drugs" wouldn't even exist. Strange how bad law always does the opposite of what's it's expecteded to do.

The timeliness of this

The timeliness of this book's advent couldn't be better; last year the Government Accounting Office gave the ONDCP a bureaucratic black eye for exactly the practices this book evidently covers. The recommendations of the report were unusually punitive: they suggested that the ONDCP staff have their salaries cut if they couldn't prove their efficacy in stemming illegal drug usage. Immediately afterwards, in a bald-faced move to protect its slice of the fed budget, the ONDCP launched a propaganda assault to attempt to blunt the criticism of its' recorded ineffectiveness by claiming that such studies as Monitoring the Future vindicated their policies. But the writing's on the bureaucratic wall, and nothing that ONDCP tries to do can erase the evidence of past failures.

The Statistical Game to Prey on the Poor While Gov't Porks Away!

Very refreshing information. As a 53 year-old, third generation of being in an environment of "recreational drugs" and now a son in prison for (the first one in the family) distribution & intent to sell drugs and carrying a weapon. He was incarcerated for 1 year in solitaire confinement before he was 18 to wait till he turned of age to be sentenced finally for 10 years (5 years time/ 5 years parole) for a weight of a 8 ball (X & crack) and 2 concealed weapons without the clip. I am not making excuses for stupidity. My head told me the first time to keep him in juvenile hall but knowing that statistics are for the government to manipulate, I didn't do the tuff-love thing. However, he was/is used to send out the message that the state and the feds to do not play when it comes to keeping up with statistics. I know folks that have been in more dealings and somehow are not incarcerated as long. Money plays a big part for expensive legal proceedings. The corrupt government to play the statistical game has always been a mystery to me. When I took criminology in undergrad school, I would wonder who is double-checking the statistics. Finally, the statistical game is being used to expose the truth. I love you all for bringing some justice at least in writing for now.

maybe i dont want to stay clean

i use drugs recreationally. i do not have an addiction. i do not engage in self-destructive behavior. i have never stolen to get high, i have never neglected my responsibilities to get high. i have never gone hungry so i could spend my last 50 on a gram. i don't need to "stay clean for the remainder of my life" to be a well- adjusted, responsible, loving parent, and intelligent contributing member to society.

i hate to seem confrontational, but your title line "this really needs to be said," quite frankly needs to never be said if its addressed to everyone that uses drugs, suggesting responsible recreational use of a plant in the privacy of my own home is a de facto problem.

if you want to stay clean, that's your right and i won't tell you that the way you live your life is wrong. please don't insinuate that i am defective if i happen to have a different philosophy.

Dear Maybe I don't want to stay clean

While you may honestly believe that you are not addicted to drugs and that you have never neglected your responsibilities, etc., you are on your way down. It is understandable that you are tired of hearing that recreational drug use is wrong, but most people cannot maintain control and do in fact become addicted.

Once you admit you have a problem, getting into a drug rehab like is the only viable choice for you. For now you may feel that you have control, but you are most likely self-medicating because you have an undiagnosed disorder such as depression or ADHA. You will eventually find yourself dependent and when you do, I hope that you will seek help.

be a little more open minded

(i'm not 'maybe i don't want to stay clean', i'm a different person)

Absolute abstinence is a good philosophy like being a vegetarian is a good philosophy. However, there are pros and cons to eating a little meat once in a while (not just in physical terms, but also in psychological terms). It is greatly a matter of philosophy. Drug use is the same.

As a frequent marijuana user

As a frequent marijuana user myself.. I agree with the statement "Maybe I don't want to be clean for the remainder of my life." Just because one uses a drug doesn't mean it will lead to addiction, nor that it is used due to an undiagnosed disorder. Please don't assume that all drug users have a hidden reason for their usage. Have you ever thought that maybe some people just use it for a good time when they have a few moments?

I used to do a lot of pills when I was a teen, and even then I'd have friends asking "Do you need to talk to somebody?" "Is everything ok?" Yeah, everything was fine.. I was just having a good time. I had fun doing the pills. Sure, it was dangerous, which is why I no longer do them. All I'm trying to say is that not each user falls into the same category of dependancy. Just as there are alcoholics who drink everyday because they hate their lives, and then there are those who get drunk once a month with their friends.

Just don't judge somebody's usage before you know why they even are users.

you are whats wrong with the

you are whats wrong with the world

testing short desc...

testing short desc...

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