John Walters' Well-Kept Secret: 'Our Drug Policy Is a Success'


Drug czar John Walters marks the 75th anniversary of Repeal Day in today's Wall Street Journal by rehashing his argument that the government is (finally!) winning its war on the intoxicants that, unlike alcohol, remain illegal:

Our policy has been a success—although that success is one of Washington's best kept secrets.

Reported drug use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders has declined for six straight years. Teen use of cocaine, marijuana and inhalants is down significantly, while consumption of methamphetamine and hallucinogens like LSD and Ecstasy has all but collapsed.

The number of workplace tests that are positive for cocaine is down sharply, to the lowest levels on record. Even the sudden spike of meth use—remember the headlines from just a few years ago?— has yielded to a combination of state and federal regulations controlling meth ingredients.

As usual, Walters does not make a serious attempt to show that declines in reported drug use under the Bush administration have anything to do with its policies. And even if we accept his post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning, the numbers do not support his claim of success. Survey data for the last few decades indicate that drug use has gone up and down with no apparent relationship to changes in personnel or policy. In the Monitoring the Future Study, for example, the percentage of high school seniors reporting illegal drug use in the previous month peaked in 1997, four years before George W. Bush took office. And Walters is wrong when he claims that "reported drug use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders has declined for six straight years." There was an uptick in reported drug use among both sophomores and seniors between 2006 and 2007. Does he want to take credit for that as well?

Hallucinogen use by teenagers, which Walters brags "has all but collapsed," has been falling more or less steadily since 1995, three years into the first term of an administration that Walters has repeatedly blasted as soft on drugs. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicates that cocaine use, which Walters implies has fallen sharply under Bush, has been essentially flat since 2002, the first year of the survey. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, the pedecessor to the NSDUH, cocaine use fell from the mid-1980s to the early '90s and was essentially flat through 2001. Methamphetamine use has been falling since 1999 among eighth-graders, since 2000 among sophomores and seniors, and since 2001 in the general population 12 and older. Evidently the Bush administration's drug policies are so effective they work retroactively. Or maybe Walters counts a decrease in "the headlines from just a few years ago" as a success, regardless of the underlying reality.

For drug warriors, of course, the numbers don't really matter, because their response is always the same: Let's keep doing what we're doing. If drug use goes down, it means we're succeeding, so we should get more money. If drug use goes up, we need to redouble our efforts, so we should get more money.

In any case, it's not clear why a decline in drug use per se should count as a victory without evidence that the harm associated with drug use has declined commensurately. If a dramatic reduction in reported drug use were achieved by eliminating every occasional pot smoker, for example, the benefit in terms of health, productivity, and improved social functioning would be negligible. Furthermore, Walters completely fails to consider the other side of the ledger: the enormous costs of the war on drugs (which Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance discusses in a companion article). Even a committed paternalist, if he is honest, has to ask whether the damage prevented by drug prohibition outweighs the damage it inflicts.

"The good news in drug policy," Walters writes, "is that we know what works, and that is moral seriousness." Moral seriousness on this subject would require taking into account half a million nonviolent drug offenders behind bars, the victims of black market violence, avoidable deaths caused by the unreliable quality and unsanitary practices that prohibition fosters, the risk-premium subsidy to thugs and terrorists, the corruption of law enforcement officials, and the loss of civil liberties resulting from the drug war's perversion of the Constitution. Walters' claim to moral seriousness is therefore hard to take seriously. I'd settle for a little bit of intellectual seriousness from whomever Barack Obama chooses to succeed Walters, but it seems to be incompatible with the job.