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David in the Liar's Den

Submitted by smorgan on
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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