The Last Word on the Drug War


Anticipating today's release of the federal government's latest anti-drug strategy, Jonathan V. Last, The Weekly Standard's online editor, had an op-ed piece in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer declaring that "we are winning the war on drugs." His main thesis seems to be that when drug use (of any kind, within any demographic) goes down, that shows the president (inevitably a Republican) is doing something right.

As I note in my column today, the recent decline in self-reported drug use among teenagers, for which President Bush would like to take credit, does not coincide with his administration, beginning instead in the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton occupied the White House. Last obscures this inconvenient fact by asserting that "after 2001, the tide turned." I don't know about the tide, but teenage drug use, as measured by the government's own surveys, started going down several years before then. Likewise, the decline in drug use during the 1980s, which Last attributes to the Reagan administration's enlightened attitude toward drugs, began before Reagan took office and well before his policies could have had any impact.

Last is vague on the question of how Bush managed to (retroactively) turn the tide, attributing it to more spending on "law enforcement and drug treatment." It's not clear how these programs made teenagers less inclined to smoke pot. Or is he claiming that the government managed to cut the supply of marijuana so much that even teenagers who wanted to get high had to drink beer instead? As far as I know, there's no evidence of that. Marijuana availability, as measured by surveys, has been more or less flat since the mid-'90s.

My own view is that drug use goes up and down for a variety of reasons that have little to with the latest drug war playbook, even if it happens to be written by a Republican. That is not to say that prohibition itself has no impact on drug consumption; it's just that tinkering at the margins, which is all that presidents of either party have ever done, does not seem to have a noticeable, lasting effect on supply or demand. In particular, the supply-side measures into which President Bush wants to sink even more taxpayer money–eradication and interdiction–are notoriously ineffective, because 1) there are many places where drug crops can be produced and 2) drugs acquire most of their value after arriving in the U.S., so shipments intercepted on the way can be cheaply replaced, with no perceptible impact on the retail price.

But Last seems to subscribe to the "if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can keep drugs out of the country" school of drug policy thought (as opposed to the "if we can't keep drugs out of prisons, how the hell can we keep them out of the country?" school). He cites reported increases in coca eradication and cocaine interdiction as if these were ends in themselves, without offering evidence that they had any impact on retail price or consumption.

Last also comically asserts that "the supply side of the equation–the 'war' part of the war on drugs– has solid metrics." The government does not even know how much cocaine moves from Latin America to the U.S. each year. The GAO report I mention in my column notes that the estimate for 2004 was "between 325 and 675 metric tons." The GAO dryly adds that "such a wide range is not useful for assessing transit zone interdiction efforts."

Last places himself in opposition to the "sophisticates" who subscribe to the "cosmopolitan" view that the war on drugs is a failure. But it seems to me that sophisticated people who know something about how the world works (say, the University of Maryland's Peter Reuter) are more reliable than partisan hacks whose main priority is not even "fighting drugs" so much as making their team look good.

[Thanks to Radley Balko for the tip.]