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.


"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.

NEXT: Obama's New New Deal: As Bad as The Old New Deal

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. No way, no how, has Obama ended the war on drugs. So why does the drug czar insist that he has?

    Oh I think everyone here knows why.

  2. Furthermore, more people also seek addiction treatment for alcohol than for pot.

    Marijuana is not a drug. Bob Saget used to suck dick for coke. You ever sucked dick for some marijuana? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    1. come on; of course, pot is a drug. Hell, nicotine is a drug. I’m all for legalization – of anything that consenting adults want to put into their bodies – most since those things combined seem to cause a lot fewer problems than alcohol by itself. But, let’s not kid ourselves that weed isn’t a drug.

      1. Booooo!

      2. Boo

      3. This, exactly! I am sooooo tired of the “Weed isn’t as badf as..” argument. I know people who were (and I tend to assume still are) ruining their lives with pot. Of course, when you get right down to it I have known people who were ruining their lives with LOTS of things, many of them not remotely drug-like. The point is not that pot is harmless. The point is that the War on Drugs does far more damage to society than the drugs do.

        Pot is not harmless.

        White Supremacy is not harmless.

        Having the government try to eradicate either does more harm to society than either.

        1. I know people who were (and I tend to assume still are) ruining their lives with pot

          No idiot, you know people who are ruining their lives, who use pot. That you’re too fucking stupid to understand why that’s different says a lot about you.

          “Pot is not harmless.

          White Supremacy is not harmless.”

          What a moronic attempt at a point, FIRST, no one is saying pot is “harmless”. Stop with that stupid fucking straw man.

          Second, yes idiot White Supremacy IS harmless, in addition to being a colossally idiotic thing to compare pot to. It’s the ACTIONS dumbass.

          Is there ANYTHING in that steaming pile you posted that isn’t wrong, a lie, or just outright fucking retarded?

          1. No, you fucking retard, pot fucks up your brain, just as alcohol, LSD, and heroin. It fucks up your brain differently from the others, but it still fucks them up. If you want it to be legal to fuck up your brain with pot as well as booze, I have no objection, but you are still fucking up your brain.

            That you can claim otherwise means either you’ve smoked too much of it, or you’re a fucking retard, because by definition, if it alters your brain chemistry and gets you high, IT FUCKS UP YOUR BRAIN.

            Go chug a few bottles of medical tequila.

        2. I used to say I’ve done more stupid things from lust than from dope.

          (Probably still true almost thirty years later, despite the decline in my sex drive.)

    2. What about the people that suck dick for a living and also enjoy cannabis?

      1. Tony’s never said anything about enjoying cannabis, and he’s our resident expert/anti-straight bigot on gay stuff.

  3. “Hence the careful wording at the top of DAWN’s chart: “drugs most commonly involved in emergency department visits.””

    Any bets that this stat is every bit as honest as ‘smoking related deaths’?
    Now we know what shithead edits.

    1. In the emergency room we see TONS of patients with alcohol-related symptoms, usually severe withdrawal, alcohol intoxication delirium/confusion/agitation, people suicidal and/or seeking treatment because of alcohol dependency, and the diseases of alcohol — dementia, hepatitis, ascites, liver failure, liver/pancreatic and other cancers, and so on. Cocaine, amphetamine, other stimulants, usually paranoid agitation, or suicidal during withdrawal phase. Opiates, withdrawal, sometimes unconscious from OD. Marijuana? Nothing, really.

      Sometimes some of my colleagues will see a patient with psychosis of unknown etiology in a patient who admits to MJ use, and will have on their list of “rule-out” diagnoses “rule-out marijuana-induced psychosis”, but most of us will smirk when we see that one.

  4. If even one child is spared the agony of marijuana high, then it’s worth a trillion billion tax dollars and all the pet dogs on God’s green Earth.

    1. If they keep going, God’s Earth will not be green for long.

  5. Did this AP story asking “Is Libertarianism back” get posted here this week? It was in our Sunday paper this morning.

    1. not this one specifically, but every now and then we see something that hints of greater traction for libertarian beliefs. Makes perfect sense that this would exist in Nevada, perhaps the ultimate “leave me alone” state.

  6. That’s a flattering photo of Mike Riggs up there. :-p

  7. Federal agencies do not exist to solve problems. They exist to perpetuate their own existences. The DEA has no interest in a world where no one uses drugs that are currently illegal, because how would they justify their enormous budgets and all of the waste that goes along with it?

  8. Most people have no idea of how drugs actually affect your mind and body, which is why those bogus emergency room stats are passable. They only see heroin use in movies, and most scenes involve someone overdosing or dying soon after. Pot gets a jokier treatment in popular culture, but those less traveled still think of it as a potent gateway drug. You’ve gotta feel bad for the guys in charge of alcohol stats: deflating booze numbers for emergency room visits, then jacking them way up for car accidents statistics.

    1. the alcohol folks have a vested interest in all the numbers: in many states, the state itself runs the liquor trade; obviously, there is the law enforcement angle with checkpoints, sobriety checks, etc.; and, if the numbers sound bad enough, various “programs” to help the afflicted.

      That is three avenues of revenue connected to booze. Besides, drunk drivers only smash into your sister and kill her and a couple of kids; it’s not like they’re breaking into your house like those crazed stoners.

      1. Or eating the faces of bums.

        1. You’re kidding, right?

          ‘Cuz, you know, there’s so much precedent for people going crazy and eating people’s faces on MJ. Not to mention that MJ will show up on toxicology tests for up to 30 days after you’ve smoked. And as far as I know, there’s not even a test for some of that crazy-ass synthetic (and legal) stuff, like bath salts.

    2. An acquaintance once told me LSD had been his gateway to pot. I repeated this to someone else who pondered for a minute and said that cocaine had been his gateway to beer.

  9. I think the author is using an “accounting” trick with their first point to make marijuana look safer than it probably is.

    Is everyone who goes to the emergency room drug tested? No. While doctors can test you for illegal drugs, without your consent, they generally only have reason to do so if it relevant for the reason for admission (sleep, dazed, erratic behavior, etc).

    Because of that, these figures sometimes are relying on the self-reporting of the person admitted.

    Because alcohol is legal, and marijuana is not, the numbers will be skewed.

    I’m all for the complete legalization and taxing of marijuana, but let’s not paint a rosier picture than the facts merit, and self-reporting is not a fact.

    1. Consuming too much of anything can kill you if you try hard enough. However, marijuana is not only less toxic than alcohol on the common scale that measures relative toxicity, but it is less toxic than water.

    2. Has your mom got Huffpost blocked again Josh?

    3. 1) A lot of ER’s tox screens don’t even test for marijuana

      2)A great deal of patients will report occasional MJ use on a history and this might go into their ER writeup. But does this have anything to do with the reason for their visit? It is not clear what the reporting requirement is here, whether the abuse is related to the reason for presentation or not. Given the very high number of MJ reports on this table, I would hazard a guess that anyone who reports themselves to be a MJ user is one data point, regardless of the reason they are in the ER.

      Example: you are woodworking and accidentally get a cut on your arm that needs stitches. A laceration, a very common reason for an ER visit. If during your intake you report that you use MJ on occasion — though perhaps not for two weeks and certainly not today before you got the cut, it looks like you would still go down on this table as “abused drug involved in ED visit”.

      Also, people in the ER for other substance abuse issues will often report MJ use as well; I suppose that this will give them a check mark also.

      As I said in an upthread post, there just aren’t many reasons that someone using MJ and nothing else would have for coming to the ER, save an injury or an unrelated medical problem.

      1. I was sitting in a park under a great oak tree smoking a joint, when a sudden thunderstorm hit. Lightning struck a branch which clobbered my head and gave me a concussion.

        Another merrywanna related ED visit added to the stats.

        1. Or maybe you were brought in by the pigs for some bullshit reason and they draw blood per police request. Bam, then you have a pot related ED visit.

          1. But, hospital tox results cannot be used for criminal prosecution, they are only diagnostic; thus, unless you had a contractual agreement with the PD that you did their toxicology on arrests, it would not be done for police requests.

            We typically only do tox screens to determine causes of symptoms or for medical screening exams.

      2. 1) A lot of ER’s tox screens don’t even test for marijuana

        That fact alone should tell you how dangerous pot is and how often it causes ER visits. Trust me, because we can charge for it, if there was any basis at all for screening for pot routinely, we would. Oh, yes, we would.

  10. To be fair, the Obama administration is charged with executing the laws of the nation, including the foolish drug laws.

    It would involve using political capital to change anything, and, for a variety of reasons, he’s chosen not to do so.

    Congress is truly to blame.

    1. To be fair, the Obama administration is charged with executing the laws of the nation

      to be fair, this only seems to apply to laws that the administration 1) finds politically expedient to execute or 2) see 1. Stand where you will on DOMA, the administration will NOT enforce it. Stand where you will on immigration, ditto re: AZ. And, there is the suit against FL, which has the audacity to want to clear its voter rolls of the dead and non-residents.

    2. Congress gave the FDA the power to de-escalate the prosecution of marijuana users.

      As wareagle points out, the fact that there are foolish laws like DOMA and immigration laws on the books have not prevented the Administration from de-prioritizing prosecution of those laws.

      You are, unsurprisingly, a Dem apologist. And I always enjoy you showing up to be so categorically wrong.

      1. Isn’t it wonderful we get sporadic visits from these leftists?

    3. You mean that congress that had control of both houses for two years with a president who would’ve stamped any law they put on his desk?

      It’s nice to see that you are working hard to surpass Tony’s imbicility and shrike’s willingness to suck Team Blue dick. Keep up the hard work.

    4. Marijuana can be rescheduled by mere administrative edict. Why doesn’t Obama urge the DEA to do that?

      1. Blame the Congress! Anybody but Obama must be held responsible!

      2. Does he even need to “urge” the DEA to do that? Aren’t they an Executive agency? Can’t he actually tell the head of the DEA “move MJ down to Schedule IV of V”?

        1. Obama won’t do that – too many of his fellow Team members are Drug Warriors.

        2. SFC B|7.8.12 @ 5:44PM|#
          “Does he even need to “urge” the DEA to do that? Aren’t they an Executive agency? Can’t he actually tell the head of the DEA “move MJ down to Schedule IV of V”?”

          Not possible!
          Obstructionist repubs and all those libertarians in congress keep him from doing so!

  11. 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

    If by “reforming” they mean “changing” and by “addressing” they mean “prosecuting”, then sure.

  12. You just gotta love those bought and paid for politicians.


  13. Learn how to make money using Google. You can monetize your searching skills and earn up to $375 per hour working for this billion dollar company. You choose your working hours. Details can be found here xurl.es/dyp7n

  14. Learn how to make money using Google. You can monetize your searching skills and earn up to $375 per hour working for this billion dollar company. You choose your working hours. Details can be found here xurl.es/dyp7n

  15. Who in the world has ever gone to an emergency room for weed? That is suspect right there.

    1. Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing.

      “Doc, can you give me something? I am just way too mellow….and I have the munchies.”

      I will bet every one of those are people who fell down steps or crashed a car while they were high.

      1. Get this man 700 mg of Cheetos – stat!

    2. I was sitting in my living room one evening enjoying some cannabis and watching Ron Popiel infomercials when the local drug dealer was the victim of a drive by shooting. A stray bullet grazed my arm and it needed stitches.

      Yet another merrywanna related ED visit.

    3. Don’t know if they visited the ER…

  16. Actually, Obama probably learned these accounting tricks from other Drug Warriors, like the past six or so administrations.

    Hell, probably farther back than that, but I’m feeling generous today.

    1. If absolutely goes farther back. The Federal war on drugs dates back to the Prohibition era, and there is a certain amount of evidence that it was trumped up as a full-employment-for-out-of-work-Prohibition-thugs ploy. I seriously believe, though I would be delighted to be proven wrong, that all of the anti-drug information I have ever seen out of the government has about the same degree of basis in fact as the Anti-Booze swill peddled by the Anti-Saloon League.

      Not that I think the “Drugs are fine” people are any more truthful, but they aren’t picking my pocket to go play Eliot Ness in the inner cities.

      1. I meant, in the sense of modern-day accounting tricks to hide Drug War expenditures.

        That fucker Anslinger? If there is a Hell, I hope he’s having pineapples shoved up his ass every day. By Hitler himself.

        1. Take it back further. Teddy Roosevelt for “International drug control”, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive era for initial drug prohibition (pre-dating alcohol at the federal level) and finally blame FDR and the New Deal congress for marijuana prohibition and the prescription “gateway” for everything other than drugs derived from poppies and coca plants.

          Nixon’s “War on Drugs” was to bring the US into compliance with the Single Convention which was signed and ratified while JFK was the executive.

          The proper focus for really ending drug prohibition should be at the international level.There aren’t any countries where drugs are truly “legal”. Local efforts don’t amount to shit.I’d suggest pulling out of the UN and evicting them from NYC.

  17. I say let’s compare the stats (even if the numbers are cooked) for ER room marihuana admissions with those for before it was criminalized and then for before the Nixon drug war. I’d assume that they were null back then or close to it.

    The conclusion would be that criminalization/the drug war has failed at its most salient goal, which is to lower the so-called cost to society of drug abuse. If then you consider violence, loss of property, broken families and so forth before/after, then the conclusion is even more evident. That’s the real so-called accounting trick. A better word for it would be, “bait-and-switch”.

  18. Nice article, thanks for sharing.

    Anna @ sewa mobil jakarta

  19. None of this relates to accounting. This was not a well-worded title. This is just how the government lies about the drug war, on which they spend money.

  20. lower the so-called cost http://www.ceinturesfr.com/cei…..i-c-8.html to society of drug abuse. If then you consider violence, loss of property, broken families and so forth before/after, then the conclusion is even more evident.

  21. It would involve using political capital to change anything, and, for a variety of reasons, he’s chosen not to do so.

  22. you don’t understand the MULTIPLIER effect of all the billions of dollars that gets fed annual to law enforcement. I’d say the war on drugs creates or saves 8,000,000 a year.

  23. The Court went on to acknowledge: “the conceded complete and all-embracing taxing power”; “the complete and perfect delegation of the power to tax”; “the complete and all-embracing authority to tax”; and “the plenary power [to tax]” (emphasis added).

  24. That Whole crowd in DC, politicians, bureacrats and lobbyists are so crooked they could hide behind a corkscrew. Their goal is to TAKE taxpayer money and dole it out to their friends. The War on Drug does that so very well for them, it’s hard to see them just giving it up.
    Dems and Reps, different pages from the same bad book!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.