War on Drugs: Apparently, we've got money to burn.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Last Thursday, the AP ran a ground-breaking piece of investigative journalism. It spelled out how U.S. taxpayers have financed a $1 trillion "War on Drugs" that, 40 years after its launch, has failed to meet any of its declared goals.

That's putting it mildly. While the favored "drug du jour" varies over time, overall illicit drug use in America, by and large, has remained steady at the same time arrests of drug users have skyrocketed. Drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available than ever. Meanwhile, the U.S. is suffering a crisis of mass incarceration fueled most significantly by the War on Drugs. The racially-skewed way in which the war is waged has devastated our communities of color, as described so well in recently-published books by former Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Butler and Michelle Alexander, former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California. And while the U.S. continues to throw money at ineffective supply-side interdiction strategies, international cartels have set up shop in our own national parks, and Mexico bleeds.

Could it be that D.C. finally gets it? "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."  Those are the words of Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Apparently not. The rhetoric still sounds good, just like it did a year ago in Director Kerlikowske's first interview as the new "drug czar":

WSJ: One of the programs you support strongly is "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids." How would you take those crime-prevention efforts and use them at ONDCP?

GK: ... I would take that model, which I believe has been unbelievably successful and tell my colleagues they should advocate strongly for treatment and rehabilitation.

WSJ: Why do you see the drug problem as a public-health issue?

GK: ... I think we moved, not as much from an administrative standpoint but a collective-wisdom standpoint. We moved from 'it's a police problem' or 'a criminal justice problem' to 'it's a criminal justice, public health and social policy problem' to 'it's a public-health problem.' ...

Really? Why, then, does the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy released last week still allocate 64% of federal drug control dollars to "supply reduction" law enforcement strategies and only 36% to "demand reduction" strategies like treatment and prevention? Adding insult to injury, ONDCP altered its accounting methods in 2003 to omit the cost of warehousing drug offenders in federal prisons, counting only the costs of programs provided to the inmates. As explained by Peter Reuter, who founded the RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center:

The major difference between the [pre- and post-2003] budgets is the exclusion of almost all costs associated with the incarceration of federal drug prisoners and the exclusion of most prosecutorial expenditures. These amounted to about $4.5 billion, according to estimates by John Carnevale, former ONDCP budget director. The only Bureau of Prison expenditures that are included in the new budget are those that try to lower drug abuse among prisoners. Thus, the Bureau appears, by function, only as a treatment agency.

The bitter irony is that the man who declared the War on Drugs in 1971 has proven to be the only President since who seems to have grasped that prisons are not treatment agencies. In his book The Fix: Under the Nixon Administration, America Had an Effective Drug Policy. WE SHOULD RESTORE IT. (Nixon Was Right), Michael Massing describes how Nixon established a national treatment program that worked. His initial goal was to end the D.C. crime wave attributed to heroin addicts, and his motivation was purely political: he wanted the nation's capitol cleaned up before his election. What got the job done? Spending money on demand reduction. Under Nixon, 67% of the national drug control budget was dedicated to demand reduction strategies like treatment and prevention, and only 33% percent to supply reduction, policing strategies.

It's almost as if Nixon understood that the people struggling with addiction are the real soldiers in the War on Drugs. Treating them like criminals hasn't produced results - and it's cruel. Cruel to them, cruel to their families, and cruel to the communities to which they return with an untreated addiction and a criminal record that limits their prospects. Maybe if we shifted resources from locking people up to less expensive and more effective strategies like public education, wraparound services for at-risk families, adequate mental health services, job training, and treatment on demand, we'd see a better return on our investment.

That’s an idea the ACLU of Washington is exploring in coalition with The Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project.  Called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, this “pre-booking diversion” program redirects low-level drug offenders from jail to services.  A LEAD proposal in development for the Belltown and Skyway communities of Seattle and King County has policymakers at the table with community public safety leaders and advocates for drug law reform. The goal is not simply to improve individual outcomes in the lives of addicts but also to improve the public safety picture in the targeted communities – in a way that is less expensive and more effective than increasing incarceration rates and building more jails.

Or, we could waste another 40 years, another $1 trillion, and another couple of generations.  Your call.