Drug Czar Challenged to Justify Lopsided Spending on Drug Interdiction, Law Enforcement

The Obama administration’s drug czar went to Capitol Hill this week promising a “new approach” to reducing drug use and its consequences, but the chairman of a House oversight committee and other panelists sharply challenged the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) chief to match the words with deeds.

ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske told the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during an April 14 hearing that the Obama administration’s proposed $15.5 billion National Drug Control Budget and as-yet-unreleased 2010 National Drug Control Strategy equate to a “comprehensive, balanced policy” on drugs. Kerlikowske added that other strategy objectives included integrating addiction treatment into mainstream medicine and refocusing attention on domestic drug use.

“We are addressing drug use as a public-health issue, as well as a public-safety issue,” Kerlikowske told the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), in prepared remarks. “Overall, we must address the number-one cause of our problem: our nation’s enormous demand for drugs,” he added. “Our new national drug policy must be responsible, realistic, and informed by experience and science. Furthermore, we need to discard the idea that international supply reduction and domestic law enforcement alone can eliminate our nation’s drug policy.”

“The natural silos between the prevention, treatment and law-enforcement communities must be broken down — and the greatest use must be made of the finite resources at our disposal,” concluded Kerlikowske.

Some Progress Noted

Kucinich credited ONDCP for what he called “positive steps” in shifting tactics in the drug war — “it is clear that, at least in some areas, we are beginning to see drug policy decisions based on science and evidence instead of politics. This is especially true in the area of treatment and international source country programs” — he said in his prepared remarks.

But the subcommittee chairman chided ONDCP for failing to deliver its National Drug Control Strategy and budget summary — due by law on Feb. 1 — in time for the oversight hearing. And he repeatedly demanded that the drug czar justify directing two-thirds of antidrug spending towards supply-side programs. “Where’s the evidence that this approach is effective?” he asked Kerlikowske.

The ONDCP director was hard-pressed to answer, mentioning reduced violence in Colombia and some signs of progress in the battle against Mexican drug cartels. Asked to identify measures that have proven cost-effective in reducing drug use, Kerlikowske named drug treatment and prevention. However, when Kucinich asked why the Obama drug strategy remained oriented toward supply reduction and not demand reduction, Kerlikowske answered only indirectly, stating, “Trying to segregate drug supply and drug demand spending has stymied researchers for many years.”

Calls for Better Budget Accountability

Kucinich pointed out that the Obama plan would continue to devote two-thirds of drug-budget money to supply reduction — a ratio he said would be even more lopsided if ONDCP included the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders in its supply reduction calculation.

“We hope that this administration will work quickly to reintroduce a budget methodology that accurately communicates to Congress and the public the levels of federal spending on drug policy,” said Kucinich, who added, “The legacy of the last decade of failed drug policies based on ideology and politics over science has led us nowhere … Continuing to emphasize the failed supply-side policies of the last decade makes no sense.”

Veteran drug-budget analyst John Carnevale — whose firm, Carnevale Associates, has done consulting work for ONDCP — also expressed skepticism about the Obama administration’s stated goals versus the reality expressed in the limited ONDCP budget documentation released to date. So far, said Carnevale, the Obama drug budget “continues to substantially over-allocate funds to where research says they are least effective: interdiction and source country programs” and  “fails (as so many in the past) to present a consolidated portrait of all federal drug control spending.”

Carnevale added that the drug budget “appears to make prevention its top priority” but challenged the inclusion of $107.3 million for the Department of Education’s new Successful, Safe and Healthy Students as part of its claimed $203.3 million in prevention funding increases, saying the program includes substance abuse only as part of a long list of program priorities that include nutrition, physical fitness, and school-violence prevention.

Carnevale also questioned the inclusion of all drug-court funding in the drug budget, noting that the administration is allowing this money to also be spent on problem-solving courts and mental-health courts.

Budget Expert: Obama Plan a Disappointment

“Many of us in the drug policy field were expecting a dramatic shift in resources emphasizing demand reduction (prevention and treatment programs) in the FY 2011 request,” said Carnevale. “Instead, it appears that the shift presented to us is a minor one. Presumably, our tough fiscal climate is to blame, but there should have been an effort to substantially reduce funding for supply reduction, particularly source country eradication and transit zone interdiction programs.”

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the subcommittee that he saw little hope for a major shift in antidrug policy under the Obama administration. “ONDCP’s plans for the future are far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future,” he said in his statement before House lawmakers.

Nadelmann called for more accountability in how federal antidrug money is spent: “ONDCP’s request for $15.5 billion in drug war expenditures for FY11 includes virtually no allocation for rigorous assessment of the efficacy of U.S. drug policies,” he said. Both supply- and demand-reduction programs should be scrutinized, said Nadelmann. “The federal government continues to waste tens of millions of dollars each year on D.A.R.E., the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, student drug testing and other scared-based prevention programs repeatedly proven to be ineffective,” he said. “More funding for treatment is needed but those expenditures will prove most beneficial if they are no longer inappropriately circumscribed by drug war politics and ideology.”

ONDCP also should measure its progress in terms of reduction in the harms associated with drugs, rather than focusing on drug-use rates as a performance yardstick, said Nadelmann. “Key performance measurements should focus on the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and our drug policies, not drug use per se,” he said. “If this subcommittee advances only one drug-related reform it should be to require ONDCP to set objectives for reducing the harms associated with both drugs and the war on drugs.”

 This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 19, 2010
As originally published, this story identified Rep. Dennis Kucinich as being from Minnesota. He is from Ohio.


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