Down From the High

Do Bush's drug warriors have a time machine?


President Bush seems to think his drug policies are so effective that they work retroactively.

During his State of the Union address, which he followed up with a budget proposal that includes increased funding for the war on drugs, Bush proudly proclaimed that "drug use among youth is down 19 percent since 2001." Judging from the government-sponsored Monitoring the Future Study, that figure seems about right.

Yet the data from that survey do not fit very well with the story the Bush administration wants to tell, one in which Republicans succeed where Democrats fail. The recent peak year for past-month drug use among eighth-graders and 10th-graders was not 2001 but 1996, five years before Bush took office; past-month use among 12th-graders peaked in 1997.

Allowing time for any changes he implemented after taking office in 2001 to have an impact, I suppose Bush could try to take credit for the continuation of the downward trend after, say, 2002. But it's not clear how he thinks he accomplished that.

Marijuana accounts for most illegal drug use and most of the decline, and it's true the Bush administration has taken a hard line on marijuana—so hard that it leaves no room for desperately ill people who use the drug to relieve their suffering. But the supposedly soft-on-drugs Clinton administration had the same cruel policy.

In any case, it appears promoting marijuana as a medicine for cancer and AIDS patients does not make it seem cooler to teenagers. According to a recent analysis by the Marijuana Policy Project, "no state with a medical marijuana law has experienced an overall increase in youth marijuana use since the law's enactment"; instead "all have reported overall decreases," in line with the rest of the country.

Marijuana arrests (primarily by state and local police) reached a record high of 771,608 in 2004, but that number has been climbing since the early 1990s, as self-reported marijuana use by teenagers has gone up and down. Nor do the outlandish claims of federal anti-drug propaganda during the Bush administration (e.g., if you get high you will accidentally shoot your friend) set it apart from the outlandish claims of federal anti-drug propaganda during the Clinton administration (e.g., if you get high you will suffer brain damage and turn into "a total loser").

As for other drugs, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) brags that cocaine production was cut by nearly a third between 2001 and 2004, while "seizures and disruptions" increased by more than 40 percent. But "despite these reported successes in disrupting cocaine trafficking," the Government Accountability Office noted in a recent report, a 2004 RAND Corporation study commissioned by the ONDCP "indicates that the retail price of cocaine in the United States continued to decline through the second quarter of 2003…while retail purity remained relatively high, indicating that the supply of cocaine had not been reduced."

More to the point, the increase in interdiction has not had a noticeable impact on cocaine use. In the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of past-month cocaine users was almost exactly the same in 2004 as it was in 2002 (around 2 million). During the same period, past-month cocaine use among teenagers, as measured by the Monitoring the Future Study, likewise remained essentially flat.

With heroin, the record is even worse. After a much-ballyhooed effort to cut opium production in Afghanistan, the United Nations said the acreage devoted to poppies was reduced by one-fifth between 2004 and 2005. Yet opium production was virtually unchanged, with the country still accounting for an estimated 87 percent of the world's heroin.

The president's 2007 budget calls for higher spending on these futile efforts to cut drugs off at the source. Instead of continuing to throw our money away, perhaps he should just declare victory by taking credit for reducing cocaine and heroin use during the Clinton administration.