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.]

NEXT: ATTN: D.C. Area Reasonoids

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. One of the things that I think is obscured in the surveys is that lots of kids these days don’t bother with pot because they are too busy self-dosing with ritalin, or paxil, or any one of a dozen other prescription uppers or downers that are easily available to them.

  2. RC: Which is why “The War on Drugs” should be called “The War on Those Drugs of Which The Government Disapproves”.

  3. Does the gullibility of those surveyed follow cycles as well as drug use following cycles?

    When drug use is seen as very high, informants are planted, traffic stops increase,busts go up, and people wise up and clam up about their personal drug use.

    Survey results will then drop for reported drug use. It’s a self fullfilling cycle exploited by researchers for grant money, police for enforcement money, and politicians for votes.

    Another boondoggle with scarce tax dollars, nothing more.

  4. “President Bush *wanks* to sink even more taxpayer money”

    It’s still early in the year, but I think Jacob Sullum just brought home gold in the “Most Inadvertantly Appropriate Typo” category for 2006.

  5. Yep Freud, a notorious cocaine user himself,would be proud!

  6. Abuse natural drugs!!!

    Endorphins rule!!

    Legal, natural, and available..merely from exersize. Pumped up with oxygen and goofy, a great way to live.

  7. This could be nothing more than the usual practice of taking credit for every seemingly positive thing that happens during one’s administration.
    I practice the same thing myself. Unemployment down? That was me man. No terrorist attacks on American soil in several years? There’s no need to thank me, really.

  8. These are people with just enough knowledge and understanding to be dangerous, but not nearly enough to approach wisdom.

  9. Mr. Last must have a strange definition of failure. I don’t think of myself as a “cosmopolitan sophisticate”, but have trouble seeing how a system where our rights are continually violated yet users can still get the drugs they want could be called a success.

    Maybe he’s just a sucker for falsely inflated statistics.

  10. 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

    You aren’t suggesting that prison guards are corrupt, are you?

    Perish the thought!

    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.

    Obviously it shows that we should seek to replicate that success for other types of drug abuse in other demographics. Of course, that might require some funding to implement. So obviously we need to spend more money!

    This could be nothing more than the usual practice of taking credit for every seemingly positive thing that happens during one’s administration.

    When Fidel Castro finally dies in the year 2031, we’ll be told that it’s all the doing of whoever the President is at the time.

  11. “if we can’t keep drugs out of prisons”

    Prisoners should be allowed ro grow their own, then most of it should be donated for medical use.

    A mellow rehabilitated prison population would be the result. Lowering costs to taxpayers and enhancing the safety of all.

    Legalize in prison first! Hehehey.

  12. Clearly, terrorist attacks that kill over 2,000 people causally lead to 4-year declines in teenage drug use.

    On a serious note, I would suggest that 2001 is the arbitrary date for the “turn of the tide” because that’s the year that “the world changed forever.”

  13. When Fidel Castro finally dies in the year 2031, we’ll be told that it’s all the doing of whoever the President is at the time

    Castro will die at exactly the moment of my choosing, not a second later or sooner. As soon as I have done the deed, I will tell you about it via the world press.
    Unless it turns out to be a bad thing. In which case, it wasn’t me. It was a guy I know named Thoreau.

  14. King Canute was clearly and obviously unable to prevent the most recent tide from waxing. However, perhaps his groupies were correct in their assumption that he deserves credit for the waning of the tide just past.

    In other words, he was powerful as hell, but half a phase out of synch.

    Cut the dude some slack, oh ye of little faith.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.