April 28, 2006

Senators ask US drug czar to explain rosy reports

By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. drug czar has been
challenged to explain disputed statistics underlying a string
of rosy reports on progress in cutting the flow of cocaine from
South America, one of which prompted an expert to liken the
official numbers to "lipstick on a pig."

The request came in a detailed 1,800-word letter to John
Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug
Control Policy (ONDCP), from Senator Chuck Grassley, the
Republican chairman of the Senate Caucus on International
Narcotics Control.

The Iowa senator expressed concern that the ONDCP has been
picking data "to provide a rosier but not necessarily more
accurate picture" on the multi-billion dollar effort to
eradicate coca plantations in Colombia, the world's top
producer of cocaine, Bolivia and Peru.

The letter took particular issue with the drug czar's
assertion, first made last November, that the anti-drug fight
had led to an increase in the price and a decrease in the
purity of cocaine on American streets, and an April 14 report
on a long-running program to eradicate Colombian coca fields by
spraying them with herbicides.

That report said there had been an eight-percent reduction
in equal areas surveyed by satellite last year and in 2004.
Overall, however, the report said coca cultivation showed an
increase of 26 percent after the satellite imaging area was

Critics of Washington's counter-cocaine policies have long
insisted that the area under coca cultivation in Colombia had
been seriously underestimated. The report on an eight percent
reduction drew sharp criticism from experts who say the numbers
are skewed and eradication is ineffective.

"This is like putting lipstick on a pig," said Joy Olson,
Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America.
"Anyway you dress it, it is bad policy."

The letter questioned the ONDCP's statistics and
methodology and said Walters' reports had raised "serious
concerns within Congress about our ability to effectively
combat narco-traffickers."

Aerial spraying of Colombian coca fields is a key plank in
an anti-narcotics program on which Washington has so far spent
more than $4 billion. Overall, the U.S. has spent around $7
billion on counter-drug campaigns in South America.


In the April 14 report being questioned by the Senate
narcotics caucus, the ONDCP estimated the area under coca
cultivation in Colombia at 144,000 hectares. That was more than
the 136,000 hectares detected by U.S. satellites in 2000, the
year Washington committed to the first $1.3 billion for Plan
Colombia meant to throttle the lucrative traffic in cocaine.

Neither aerial spraying nor stepped-up efforts to intercept
cocaine shipped to the U.S. by land or sea have made a dent on
the drug's easy availability in the U.S.. And apart from
temporary spikes, its price has declined steadily since 1979,
according to several studies of the illicit market.

Critics of eradication programs say they are ineffective
because of what is known as the "balloon effect" -- just as
squeezing a balloon in one place makes it bulge in another,
wiping out an illegal drug crop in one place makes it pop up

"How does ONDCP reconcile the apparent disparity in the
information being reported about cultivation and cocaine
price/purity with the trends in cocaine consumption as reported
in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health?" the letter

According to that survey, cocaine is so easily available
that, on average, 2,700 Americans are trying it for the first
time every day.

Survey data show that the number of first-time users has
run at around one million a year from 2000 to 2004. Figures for
2005, due to be released later this year, are not expected to
show a significant change.

Experts say that statistics on any illegal drug's first
time use are important to track trends - and the trend shows no
significant change.

The government's figures on the drug war have been
questioned before but there have been no changes in policy.

Last November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO,
the investigative arm of Congress, described as problematic the
way the government measures success in its anti-drug fight. The
GAO noted "an absence of adequate, reliable data."

The Senate caucus's letter requested a written reply to its
questions by May 5. The drug czar's office was not available
for comment on Friday.