Peeing on the DEA's Birthday Parade


Yesterday the Drug Enforcement Administration turned 35, which is old enough to realize things are not working out quite the way you expected. The DEA covers its midlife crisis with celebratory bluster:

At its outset, the DEA had 1,470 Special Agents, a budget of less than $75 million, and a presence in 31 countries. Today, the DEA has 5,235 Special Agents, a budget of more than $2.4 billion and 87 foreign offices in 63 countries.

As the careful reader will notice, those are what economists call "inputs." How has the "all-out global war on the drug menace" declared by Richard Nixon been going in terms of outputs? The DEA brags about "destroying powerful drug organizations," but that is not an end in itself, especially since they tend to be replaced by other drug organizations. Isn't the ultimate goal of drug law enforcement to, you know, reduce drug use? The Monitoring the Future Study, a survey with data going back to the mid-1970s, suggests that all the staffing and spending and destroying has not amounted to much by that measure:

Percentage of 12th-graders who reported using marijuana in the previous year

1975: 40

2007: 31.7

Percentage of 12th-graders who reported using cocaine in the previous year

1975: 5.6

2007: 5.2

Percentage of 12th-graders who reported using heroin in the previous year

1975: 1

2007: 0.9

The cocaine and heroin numbers show essentially no change since the DEA got to work. Past-year marijuana use among high school seniors (or at least the willingness to report it) is down significantly, by about one-fifth. (That number peaked at 50.8 percent in 1979.) But remember: According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the marijuana teenagers were smoking back then was, by and large, not even strong enough to get them high, whereas today's marijuana is so strong that it's a different, far more dangerous drug. From the DEA's perspective, a shift from large numbers smoking mostly inert material to smaller numbers smoking one-hit-is-plenty superweed can hardly be counted as a success.

[Thanks to Terry Michael for the tip.]