Drug Policy

The Other War That Isn't Covered by Obama's Spending Freeze

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The Office of National Drug Control Policy released its proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 on Monday. Over at The Raw Story, Stephen C. Webster argues that it shows drug czar Gil Kerlikowske was "full of hot air" when he talked about "handling drug addiction as a medical problem, moving away from the brash enforcement tactics that hallmarked prior administrations." Webster certainly has a point, although he and I might disagree on the question of what exactly Gil Kerlikowske is full of. The share of the anti-drug budget allocated to "treatment and prevention"—as opposed to domestic law enforcement, interdiction, and international source control—averaged nearly 40 percent under Bush. Under Obama, it is 34 percent in the current fiscal year (down from 35 percent in fiscal year 2009) and would rise to 36 percent next year. So there is not much evidence that the Obama administration is reallocating resources from supply reduction to demand reduction, as is typically advocated by critics who say drug abuse should be treated as "public health" issue. For Kerlikowske to call this budget "balanced" is indeed a joke by that measure.

Then again, the total drug control budget under Bush increased an average of almost 6 percent a year, compared to increases of 1.5 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively, in Obama's first and second fiscal years. So far, in other words, drug control spending is rising by an average of 2.5 percent annually, less than half the rate under Bush. I'd rather see a smaller total budget than a bigger one with more money allocated to "treatment and prevention," especially since the programs the government chooses to fund in those categories are not likely to be any more effective than busting pot dealers or tearing up poppies in Afghanistan. Nor will they necessarily be less coercive, since illegal drug users are typically forced into "treatment" under threat of imprisonment. Kerlikowske's eschewal of martial metaphors and embrace of medical language, like Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey's, probably will turn out to be a cover for business as usual. But even if it led to some rejiggering of the anti-drug budget, I'm not convinced it would yield a noticeable improvement.

By the ONDCP's reckoning, by the way, the total federal drug control budget is around $15 billion, but the actual total is subtantially higher, even without taking state and local spending into account. Go here (PDF) for an explanation of how accounting tricks hide a lot of federal anti-drug spending.

Drug control budget numbers through fiscal year 2010 are here (PDF). The ONDCP summary of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 is here (PDF). I express my skepticism about the change of course signaled by Kerlikowske's rhetorical shift here. I discuss the hazards of medicalizing the drug war here and here.