Civil Liberties

Drug Czar Fail


John Tierney digs up the Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy, and notes that the administration has unsurprisingly come up far short in its goal to reduce illegal drug use by 25 percent within five years.

There has been an overall decline, but it's been marginal—less than four percent.  Nevertheless, we continue to set new annual records in overall marijuana arrests, and drug czar John Walter's office is dubiously trumpeting the slight declines as vindication that the Bush-Walters overall strategy is working.

But there's a side to this discussion that's quite a more nefarious than your usual drug warrior manipulation of data. 

The ONDCP has been celebrating these marginal declines (largely driven by declines in the use of marijuana) as a "success" for a couple of years now.  From a piece I wrote in February:

In December 2006, the ONDCP put out a triumphant press release celebrating a five-year decline in the use of illicit drugs among teens.

"There has been a substance abuse sea change among American teens," Walters said in the release. "They are getting the message that dangerous drugs damage their lives and limit their futures. We know that if people don't start using drugs during their teen years, they are very unlikely to go on to develop drug problems later in life."

But here's what the ONDCP doesn't want to talk about:

But the following February, the Centers for Disease Control reported that deaths from drug overdoses rose nearly 70 percent over the previous five years.

Half the overdose deaths were attributable to cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs (the number of overdose deaths caused by marijuana—the drug most targeted by the ONDCP—remained at zero). One of the biggest increases (113%) came among aged 15-22, those same teenagers Walters was celebrating just three months earlier.

We're told that drug war is a moral imperative because, in the words of Walters himself, "dangerous drugs damage [children's] lives and limit their futures."  But like most temperance zealots, Walters measures success not by actual lives wrecked or ended prematurely, but merely by how many people are and aren't getting high. 

Switching from the "drugs ruin lives" justification for the drug war itself to "how many people are getting high" when measuring the same drug war's effectiveness, then, hides a more important statistic:  How many people have had their lives ruined and futures limited by the drug war?  The vast majority of the 873,000 people arrested for marijuana offenses last year, for example, likely had more damage done to their lives by the prohibition of marijuana than could ever be done by the drug itself.

Such is why drug warriors like William Bennett, Karen Tandy, and Walters can assert with a straight face that alcohol prohibition was, also, a "success."  Sure, the crime rate spiked, alcohol hospitalizations soared, and corruption and contempt for the rule of law was rampant.  But fewer people swallowed down less demon rum.  So, score one for social engineering.

Sure, deaths from drug overdose have jumped 70 percent, and more than doubled among young people.  But fewer people are smoking pot.  And that means we're winning.