Drug War 101: Drug Control Budget
Ok, since there was some confusion generated by some of my previous posts on the drug war, let’s start to simply look at some basic information so that we can perhaps, over time, establish some foundational issues from which discussion can be held.
My general position, so that it is clear, is that we are no getting what we are paying for in the drug war but that the public, in general, thinks that we are. This is evident by the fact that really any serious public discussion of changing the policy by a politician is typically considered political suicide, as any discussion of altering the basic approach of the policy is considered being soft on drugs and crime and surrender (after, all it’s called a war for crying out loud!). Regardless, however, of my position, there are still some basic facts that need to be understood.
Let’s start with money. The below is taken from FY 2011 Budget Summary (Table 3: Historical Drug Control Funding by Function [PDF]) as published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is part of the Executive Office of the President and is the clearinghouse for US drug policy. The head of the ONDCP is colloquially known as the “Drug Czar.”
A couple of basics that should be noted. First, as I described in a previous post, there are two components to anti-drug policy, the demand side (drug consumers) and the supply side (production, manufacture, transport, and sales). Where one focused the policy is key. It is possible, for example, the focus heavily on the demand side by looking at education and treatment. Some countries pursue policies that are more focused on the demand side. Supply side policies are heavily focused on interdiction and law enforcement.
From this table we can see a few things. First, the annual anti-drug budget is an 11-figure number: the FY2011 request is $15,552,500,000. That is a lot of money, especially in the context of growing budget deficits and debt. It is therefore not unreasonable to ask if the money is being spent efficaciously. That is, by the way, a starting point in a discussion, not an end point.
Second, it is worth noting that our policies are increasingly aimed at the supply side (specifically on the international and interdiction lines). Is that increase achieving its goals? If one looks at Mexico, for example, one would have one’s doubts. Indeed, an NPR story this morning noted that in Mexico “Fighting among the cartels — and between government forces and the cartels — has cost nearly 24,000 Mexican lives since Calderon took office in late 2006.” That is during a period of increasing spending by the US government. We are currently set on spending $1.3 billion specifically on Mexico. I would note, by the way, that some will likely respond that things have gotten better in Colombia of late. This is true, but “better” is a relative term (and itself a very lengthy discussion). Beyond that, in terms of the drug war, all that we have managed to do is shift the locus of the conflict from Colombian to Mexico. It is worth considering if, in fact, that represents a good return on investment. Put another way: one could argue that we have invested tens of billions of dollars to simply move the fight closer to our borders (and the drugs still flow).
I will reiterate the following, as some readers appear not to have understood the following in my previous posts: the key metrics that end up being used by the US government (as well as the UN and others focused on the supply side of the equation) are hectares under cultivation, hectares eradicated, amount of drugs seized, the price of the drugs in question, and arrests. These are not my metrics chosen to make the policy look bad, they are the metrics used by the designers and defenders of the policy.
As such, when I pointed out that from 1990-2007 that the wholesale price of cocaine has declined, the reason for doing so is to demonstrate that despite the considerable expenditure of taxpayer dollars that the policy is not achieving one of its goals. Price is indicative of supply. Yes, as some have noted, it is not the only factor. However, the basic parameters of the black market in drugs (which inflates the price by itself) were well in place by 1990 and there was reason to assume that the pressure placed on producers and traffickers over a sustained period of time would constrict supply. While there has been some, often temporary, effects on supply, the policy has failed to produce the desired results. Pay attention next time that there is even a small spike in price, and the likelihood is that the ONDCP or some other organization will cite it as evidence of drug war success.
The hectares under cultivation issue is also key for drug warriors. The ONDCP and the UN love to point out how many hectares of coca have been destroyed. But the point of my post on the subject is that while there was a marked decrease in cultivation starting in 2002, the trend then flattens out. This suggests that the policies were able to attack the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, initially but that the cultivators were able to adapt. If the policy was really working, each year there ought to be less and less cultivation. Instead, there isn’t. More money and activity have not resulted in less coca being grown from 2002 onward. How is that success? How is that an effective expenditure? (And no, those aren’t rhetorical questions). Again, do look at the charts.
Link up steady production with little effect on price (indeed, a downward trend on price) and we have a situation in which is it fair to call into question the supply side approach by its own metrics.