March 7, 2006
War on Drugs: Elusive Victory, Disputed Statistics
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
Washington -- Despite three decades of upbeat reports on battles won in the war on drugs, cocaine, heroin and marijuana are as easily available as ever and experts say the United States has yet to develop a strategy that works.
The annual reports were issued by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a 130-member group which sets anti-drug policy and is headed by "drug czar" John Walters, and by the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
By some estimates, the United States consumes more than 60 percent of the world's illicit drugs, far out of proportion with its 4.5 percent of the world's population. It is by far the biggest market for cocaine, a drug that yields staggering profits for traffickers.
In most major U.S. cities, cocaine sells on the street for under $100 a gram with New York prices ranging from $20 to $60 a gram and Los Angeles around $80 a gram.
Despite the ready availability of cocaine, the White House's ONDCP reported: "Our ... overseas counterdrug efforts have slowly constricted the pipeline that brings cocaine to the United States."
Similar announcements have been issued regularly ever since Richard Nixon issued the official declaration of war on drugs in 1969. Four years later, Nixon said the United States had "turned the corner" on drug addiction and drug supplies.
When Washington's first drug czar, William Bennett, left his post, the White House said he had put the U.S. "on the road to victory" in the drug war. That was 16 years ago. Today, cocaine, heroin and marijuana are as widely available as they were then - at sharply lower prices.
"The price decline began in 1979 and the downward trend has been steady," said Mark Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kleiman is one of about a dozen academic experts in the United States who have studied the drug trade for decades.
They viewed with skepticism an assertion in the drug czar's report that the street price of cocaine - the drug that most worries the government - had increased by 19 percent while purity had dropped by 15 percent between February and September 2005. The drug policy office called it a "trend reversal."
There have been temporary price spikes before but the trend remained unchanged.
ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
In the drug war, the pattern has been one step forward, one step back - one trafficking organization smashed, another one formed; one hectare of coca or opium poppy destroyed, another one planted; one dealer imprisoned, another taking his place.
Questioned on cocaine prices on the street, Drug Enforcement Administration offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Miami, Atlanta and New York told Reuters no significant fluctuations had been noticed last year.
The DEA headquarters in Washington distanced itself from the drug czar's price increase figures and responded in a written statement to questions on the apparent discrepancy.
"The DEA provided ONDCP with our System to Retrieve Information on Drug Evidence, an inventory system that monitors and catalogs drug evidence taken in by DEA Special Agents around the country," the statement said.
"We did not take part in the study on which they based their conclusions so therefore don't feel it appropriate to comment on ONDCP's conclusions."
Said John Walsh, a drug expert at the Washington Office on Latin America: "In the drug war, numbers are routinely used to justify policy. Healthy skepticism is on order."
Peter Reuter, a drug expert at the University of Maryland, said the numbers were inconsistent with long-term trends and open to doubt. And, John Carnevale, a former senior aide to four drug czars, said ONDCP was "cherry-picking" statistics.
DRUG WAR DATA 'PROBLEMATIC'
Such skepticism echoed a November report by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, which described as "problematic" the data the government is using to assess progress in the anti-drug fight.
Apart from an "absence of adequate, reliable data on illicit drug prices and use," the GAO said, other figures were so broad as to be useless.
It cited the drug czar's 2004 estimate that Latin American traffickers were preparing to move between 325 and 675 tonnes of cocaine to the United States. "This wide range is not useful for assessing interdiction efforts," it said.
Most of the 1.6 million drug-related arrests each year are for possession of drugs rather than trafficking. These arrests and rigid mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses have helped to turn the U.S. prison population into the world's biggest, at around 2.2 million.
While the administration has publicly acknowledged the importance of treatment and prevention at home, most of the drug czar's budget has gone to interdiction and law enforcement.
That trend continued with the budget request for 2007 - around 35 percent for demand reduction, 65 percent for crackdowns on supplies.
When she introduced the State Department's progress report in March, Anne Patterson, who heads the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, was asked to explain how ever-larger seizures and crop spraying programs squared with the fact that drugs were still readily available.
"If we weren't doing these programs," she said, "the situation would be very dramatically worse."