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David in the Liar's Den

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Ever wonder what it's like to watch a drug warrior squirm? I've had the pleasure a few times now, but the discussion I witnessed this afternoon at the Cato Institute was particularly intense.

Today, Matthew B. Robinson and Renee G. Sherlen presented the findings of their new book Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Impressively, ONDCP's brave "Chief Scientist" David Murray was on hand to address this particularly comprehensive attack on the credibility of his office.

The authors delivered a tight synopsis of their findings, bashing ONDCP propaganda with charts, graphs, and effects. Dr. Murray made a show of feigned surprise and eye-rolling, but the breadth and substance of the criticism leveled against his work was too substantial to shrug off. It almost felt like a set-up; the dignified Cato equivalent of strapping a mob snitch to a chair and beating him with a blackjack.

In turn, Dr. Murray spat blood on his tormentors, dismissing their analysis as biased and incompetent. Unlike his disciplined performance at last year's medical marijuana debate, Murray was irreverent and visibly angry. From my second row seat I could see his face turn crimson, but his voice never shook. Murray's composure and efficiency is the reason he makes these appearances instead of his boss.

The question of the day among my colleagues was why ONDCP would even respond to such a categorical refutation of its right to exist. As a young reformer, I learned from Eric Sterling that drug warriors typically avoid debate because doing so inherently legitimizes opposing viewpoints. Moreover, the discussion of statistics paints ONDCP into a particularly dark corner by rendering irrelevant the emotional appeals and factually-vacant soundbites that generally dominate their rhetoric.

This level of engagement between ONDCP and its critics is rare if not unprecedented. Hostile as it may have been, today's conversation demonstrates that the federal government no longer perceives itself as impervious to criticism. Murray praised the Cato Institute's work in other areas and was clearly exasperated to find himself in its crosshairs. ONDCP's crumbling monopoly on serious drug policy discussion becomes increasingly vivid when calls for accountability emerge from prestigious think-tanks, Congress, and the GAO.

As the old cliche goes, "First they laugh at you. Then they ignore you. Then they fight you. Then you win." They're fighting back now.

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borden's picture

I was there, too.

I was there, too. Had a nice talk with Cato's Timothy Lynch afterward, who moderated the event, somehow our paths have never crossed in person before. Lynch is a strong voice against prohibition, which you can see if you read his material on Cato's web site, or for that matter the interviews he's done for us.

This was indeed an intense event, as Scott described. I confess that for a couple of hours I actually felt a little bad that we basically call these ONDCP guys liars all the time. I commented to Tim, and to Eric, that it's possible these guys actually believe the things they're saying.

I still think that's possible, but my moment of feeling bad for them is over. Now I'm just offended. Maybe Dr. Murray does believe the things he's saying -- maybe they really didn't want the Monitoring the Future methods to change midstream, one of the few points Murray self-righteously argued to play victim. There's still no excuse for the unceasing games they've been playing in how they've presented the numbers all these years. And he calls US the dishonest ones?!?!?!?!?

One example: One of the authors, Prof. Scherlen, if I remember correctly, discussed how in the 2003 Strategy they omitted a large portion of the drug enforcement expenditures from the budget figures, with the effect of creating an appearance of an even split between enforcement and treatment/prevention, whereas in reality the budget is even more skewed toward enforcement than before. I can't fault Murray for not addressing that in his reply, because it wasn't a situation in which all the different points could be debated back and forth. But it is still a glaring example. I wasn't picked to ask a question, but if I had been I was going to ask Murray about it. Shortly after that Strategy was released, I heard Murray's boss, drug czar John Walters, give a talk for a small prohibitionist student group at American University, and I took the opportunity to ask him about it. He "explained" that they had made the budget reporting more "accurate" -- get this -- by omitting line items from the budget if they were from programs that are not exclusively devoted to drug control.

Think about that -- if only half of a program costing a million dollars was devoted to drug enforcement, using Walters' scheme none of that would be counted in the budget, even though half a million of it obviously should be. I'm sorry, that is the picture of dishonesty, Murray's real or pretended feelings of offense notwithstanding. It was really brazen too -- Walters actually had his revision of the budget reporting "to make it more accurate" included in his bio as read by the student organizer when introducing him.

The bottom line: Don't believe the drug czar or his minions, but don't take my word for it either -- buy this book, and read it! Ideally from us.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC


Actually, it's the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse/National Survey on Drug Use and Health, not Monitoring the Future, which changed methodology and which was discussed at the Cato forum.

borden's picture


Oops! Thanks for the heads-up. I wasn't sure if I remembered which survey they were talking about on that point, but it was too late at night to call anyone to check.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

tomangell's picture

Like giving candy to a baby

While I genuinely respect David Murray for continually putting himself in situations in which he is highly outnumbered in discussing these issues, I couldn't help but be outraged over a number of ridiculous claims he made at Cato.

For example, in response to my question about why ONDCP has covered up scientific studies showing their "anti-drug" advertising campaign to be ineffective and counterproductive, he simply responded, "Uh, the Dupont Corporation" as if to imply that I'm a loony conspiracy theorist who thinks ONDCP only puts these ads on the air to keep hemp illegal and chemical companies rich.

Then, though, he got a little more serious and said that ONDCP's ad campaign makes sense because candy bar companies have been so successful with their own advertising efforts. If ads don't successfully sell candy bars, he reasoned, why would Snickers waste so much money on producing and putting them on the air? So, too, the "anti-drug" ads...

Oh? Does Dr. Murray really think that the complex issue of preventing teens from using drugs is just like selling a candy bar? Come on!

Tom Angell
Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Students fight back against the government's Drug War attacks on youth:

borden's picture


Indeed, there is a fundamental difference between an ad to get people to buy something and an ad to get people not to buy something!

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Perhaps they're actually afraid of being sued?

Anyone spending any time investigating the history of the DrugWar realizes that there was a dearth of scientific studies legitimizing the prohibition, but a huge number of them performed afterwards in attempts to justify its' continuance. In nearly all cases, when the evidence turned out to be against maintaining prohibition, the government ignored the findings by using the bureaucratic equivalent of "I'm the mommy, that's why!" and continued on it's merrily destructive way.

However, they may no longer be able to assume such teflon-like protection. When the Americans for Safe Access group initiated their Data Quality Act suit, I imagine that alarm bells began ringing very loudly in the ONDCP's halls. The DQA, very simply, requires that government policy be based upon sound science. Obviously, cannabis prohibition would not pass the litmus test under any circumstances using this requirement. The entire anti-cannabis operation of the government is in danger of collapsing from the weight of it's own lies.

Lies partially documented in that book. If entered as evidence as apart of the discovery portion of that suit, it would prove most destructive to the government's anti-cannabis policies. I would submit that this is why Dr. Murray and his colleagues are becoming increasingly less able to maintain the facade of a teflon-coated agency...and are increasingly acting like it. The DQA could not only stick to the ONDCP teflon, but burn it.

DEA has problems with accuracy too ;)

I know this thread's kinda old but it's impossible not to add this claim by the DEA to it.

In the DEA's "Speaking out against Drug Legalization" section of its website it makes this claim:

"by World War II, drug use was reduced to the very margins of society. And that’s just where we want to keep it. With a 95 percent success rate — bolstered by an effective, three-pronged strategy combining education/prevention, enforcement, and treatment — we shouldn’t give up now."

Unbelievably, the DEA's claiming that the prohibition is responsible for the current situation where 95% of Americans do not use drugs. Nothing could be further from the truth! The reality is that the vast majority of people are simply not interested in drugs, the prohibition hasn't made them stop using drugs and it's not preventing them from using drugs. They simply have no interest in them.

Of course having made this claim the DEA is then able to go on to say "we shouldn't give up now". And so the prohibition, and the arrests, go on forever.


I always knew our government was made up of dishonest people and crooks but when you can prove beyond a doubt that they are lying to us then they need be brought up on charges and put in prison for their human rights abuses, lies, and atorcities against the US people


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