Drug Policy

3 Accounting Tricks the Obama Administration Uses to Hide the Cost of the Drug War

From ditchweed to rehab, the Obama administration finds clever ways to cook the drug war books.

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"Since day one, President Obama has led the way in reforming our Nation's drug policies by, among other things, addressing drug use and its consequences as a public health problem," reads a statement posted on We the People, the petition site started by the, er, Obama administration. If you've been the victim of a federal raid—one in which, say, your two-year-old was yanked out if his crib—or worked at one of the 500 California medical pot dispensaries the DEA and the IRS have shut down in the last year, you're probably rolling your eyes right now.

No way, no how, has Obama ended the war on drugs. So why does the drug czar insist that he has? Magical thinking helps, but so does magical accounting. Washington's drug warriors have relied for decades on wacky stats and context-free claims to justify banning some drugs while rubber-stamping the sale of others. Fuzzy campaign promises aside, the Obama administration is no different. Here are three accounting tricks federal agencies under Obama continue to use to justify the war on drugs and hide its true costs.

3.) Anti-drug agencies obscure alcohol abuse numbers in order to exagerrate the dangers of illegal drugs. 

When veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan asked the Obama administration for legal cover to treat their PTSD with medical marijuana instead of heavy duty prescription narcotics, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske told them, "We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms."

How significant? Click the link in Kerlikowske's letter about emergency room visits and you get a report put together by DAWN, the Drug Abuse Warning Network, which documents emergency room visits by substance: 

With 376,467 visits a year, marijuana seems like a big offender. But there are two problems with that figure. The first is that the data, which comes from the annual National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), doesn't distinguish between people who sought emergency care because of marijuana, and people who were high on marijuana when they sought care. Hence the careful wording at the top of DAWN's chart: "drugs most commonly involved in emergency department visits."

But let's say marijuana was actually responsible for all those marijuana-related ER visits. How does that compare to, say, alcohol? If you read the fine print, you'll notice that NIDA accounts for alcohol only when used in conjunction with other drugs or when used by minors. A footnote at the end of the report tells us why: "Underage use of alcohol only is considered to be drug misuse or abuse." 

Put another way, the National Institute for Drug Abuse doesn't consider adults who go to the emergency room solely as a result of alcohol to be misusing or abusing a drug. But wouldn't alcohol, a ubiquitous and legal drug, provide a great benchmark for measuring the overall ER impact of other drugs? 

Yes, but it would also undermine the drug czar's claims about the dangers of pot. 

Here are the facts: Alcohol, when used alone, is "involved" in far more emergency department visits than every illegal drug combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control, "In the single year 2005, there were more than 1.6 million hospitalizations and more than 4 million emergency room visits for alcohol-related conditions." A study published this year in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, meanwhile, suggests that as many as 50 percent of emergency room visits could be alcohol-related. And that number is only going up. In New York City, for instance, "nearly 74,000 people wound up in hospitals in 2009 for alcohol-related reasons, compared with just 22,000 in 2003." 

While NIDA has acknowledged that "ED [emergency department] visits involving alcohol among the general population is thought to be significantly higher than what is reported in DAWN," there's no need to say "thought to be." It's clear from the data that alcohol alone sends more people to the emergency room than marijuana and every other drug. 

Furthermore, more people also seek addiction treatment for alcohol than for pot. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrationnearly half of all substance abuse treatment center admissions "involving college or other post secondary school students ages 18 to 24 were primarily related to alcohol disorders." In fact, alcohol leads the pack in addiction treatment admissions across every age group.

There's enough data to put illicit drugs in context. Why does NIDA--"the world's largest source of drug abuse research," according to Kerilikowske--obscures them? Because NIDA's job isn't just documenting the effects of drugs that are illegal, but also providing the "scientific" justification for keeping them that way.  

The next accounting trick: hiding the cost of burning ditchweed. 

2.) The DEA wastes hundreds of millions eradicating hemp plants that can't be smoked, then omits the costs from its annual reports. 

Since its inception, the Drug Enforcement Administration's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program has spent roughly $200 million eradicating "ditchweed," or feral marijuana plants that contain no THC (the chemical in marijuana that gets you high). Even though feral marijuana can't give you a buzz, for years the DEA used it to hype the specter of domestic pot production and pad out its annual DCE/SP report. How much padding, exactly? Roughly 98 percent of the marijuana the DEA destroys in a given year is worthless as a drug (though not as industrial hemp, outlawed since the 1930s).  

For years, marijuana reformers hammered the DEA for wasting money and exaggerating the amount of pot grown domestically (lay people—and journalists—seldom distinguish between ditchweed and the stuff that gets you high). Then the squares caught on. In 1998, the state auditor in Vermont released a report criticizing the DEA's focus on ditchweed. "It is noteworthy that the federal program specifically funds, and indeed, encourages the eradication of ditchweed," the auditor noted.

In 2006, NORML's Allen St. Pierre condemned the DEA's targeting of ditchweed, which could create jobs if industrial hemp were legal. "The irony, of course, is that industrial hemp is grown legally throughout most of the Western world as a commercial crop for its fiber content. Yet the U.S. government is spending taxpayers' money to target and eradicate this same agricultural commodity." 

After getting beat about the head for years, the DEA suddenly stopped reporting ditchweed eradication after 2006. Since then, the total number of reported marijuana plants destroyed by the DEA each year has dropped from a quarter of a billion—again, 99 percent of that ditchweed—to around 10 million.

"The federal government seems to have misinterpreted criticism that the practice was a waste of resources," observed University of Illinois College of Law's Matthew Donigian in a 2011 report. "Critics were not upset with the government's reporting of 'ditchweed,' but rather the practice of seeking out and burning non-smokeable and non-cultivated cannabis plants." 

"The current practice of non-reporting provides the American people with little information on where DEA resources are being utilized," Donigian concludes, "and effectively hides the amount of money spent on an unintelligible practice." 

The next accounting trick: exagerrating the amount the government spends on prevention and rehab versus law enforcement.

1.) The Obama administration and its supporters claim to be spending more on prevention than enforcement—they aren't.  

On May 1, the Center for American Progress, which works closely with the Obama administration, hosted Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske to speak about Obama's 2012 National Drug Control Strategy. In her opening remarks, CAP President Neena Tanden said, "We welcome the…shifts in funding that have seen more money spent in the last three years on drug education and treatment than on law enforcement." 

That shift, Obama supporters claim, is the first of its kind, and a strong indicator that Obama is serious about reforming (though not ending) the war on drugs. It's such an important talking point, in fact, that Kerlikowske, prominent leaders in the rehab community (beneficiaries, all), and mainstream journalists have all repeated it.  

But is it true? Not even a little bit! John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America reviewed the Obama administration's 2012 strategy and concluded that while the Fiscal Year 2012 Budget allocated $10 billion for prevention and treatment and $9.3 billion for domestic enforcement, those two allocations don't tell the whole story. 

"The federal government also spends billions of dollars each year on interdiction and overseas supply-reduction efforts," Walsh writes, "and state and local governments spend many billions more on drug law enforcement—especially incarceration—with the aim of constraining availability." 

Furthermore, Walsh wrote, "Obama's predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush, could have made the same claim during his second term. From FY2005-FY2008, federal spending on demand reduction exceeded spending on domestic drug enforcement by an average of $1.2 billion per year, based on figures provided in the budget document accompanying the new strategy." 

In fact, when it comes down to it, Obama's drug war looks a lot like Bush's: 

When federal spending on interdiction and international drug control programs are also taken into account, it is clear that "supply reduction" efforts continue to receive the bulk of federal drug-control dollars. Again based on the historical budget figures provided in the new strategy, in FY2008, under Bush, 58.8 percent ($13.236 billion) of the federal drug budget was allocated to supply reduction (domestic enforcement, interdiction, and international programs), compared to 41.2 percent ($9.264 billion) allocated to demand reduction (treatment and prevention). Obama's FY2013 request is $3.1 billion larger than Bush's FY2008 budget, but shows an identical breakdown, with 58.8 percent ($15.062 billion) for supply reduction and 41.2 percent ($10.538 billion) for demand reduction.

Obama's FY2013 strategy includes more than $5.6 billion for interdiction and overseas supply-control efforts, which even when adjusting for inflation is 6 percent more than Bush's FY2008 spending on interdiction and overseas efforts.

Keep those figures in mind when Kerlikowske, Obama, or the administration's supporters claim Obama has radically changed drug policy. 

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter.