Prevention and Treatment: All Talk and No Money
Although the National Drug Control Strategy was actually due for submission to Congress on Feb. 1, Obama administration drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, finally released the document just this week. Why did it take so damn long? No one seems to know, and Kerlikowske hasn't said – even when U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, brought up the topic during a subcommittee meeting of the House Over-sight and Government Reform Committee last month. Meanwhile, however, a March 9 draft copy of the NDCS made its way to Newsweek, which reported that the delay in release has more to do with President Obama and, ostensibly, finding time in his schedule for a full-press media release. "It's a priority, but there are a lot of priorities around here," a senior administration official told the weekly. Apparently the drug problem isn't as pressing as we've long been led to think.
Of course that's not exactly the picture painted by the strategy released this week. "This Strategy lays out a detailed plan to establish, for the first time, a truly balanced approach to all aspects of the drug problem," reads the report. "There is no single solution – neither demand nor supply side programs alone can get the job done. We must use all the tools available to us by implementing evidence-based prevention, treatment, and enforcement policies. An array of effective programs is readily available," it continues. "This document directs Federal agencies to employ these best practices. However, in order for the Strategy to be fully effective, we must first face some fundamental truths about our Nation's drug problem." Facing fundamental truths may indeed be an important exercise, but as close as Kerlikowske has come thus far to charting a new course for drug-related dialogue, there still seems to be fundamental aspects of the drug problem that no one is willing to address.
The government readily asserts that we must "coordinate a balanced approach" to combat drugs and drug use – one that includes prevention, treatment, and law enforcement. And the new strategy has some very encouraging language toward that end. However, where the rubber meets the road – and that's inside the proposed drug war budget, released earlier this year – the amount of money marked to go to the same old law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction programs far outweighs the amount tagged for prevention and treatment – the very areas where evidence-based approaches have real impact. In other words, it's hard to know if the rhetoric will ever match the money. That's a problem, says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which promotes alternatives to the war on drugs, if this draft does in fact represent the administration's strategy. "That would be my major criticism, that the money is not following the rhetoric." Indeed, in the $15.5 billion proposed budget for 2011, just $5.6 billion is targeted for treatment and prevention programs.
And that's just crazy, really, when you consider that many of the programs under the eradication and interdiction categories – and especially the international efforts the U.S. undertakes to thwart production of drugs in countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan – are stunningly ineffective at staunching the flow of drugs. That dirty little not-so-secret took center stage last month during a hearing before a U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, where Kerlikowske was the guest of honor. In fact, Kerlikowske admitted as much under questioning by Illinois Dem Rep. Bill Foster, who said he was a bit "pessimistic" about the money put into international eradication programs. Under the Taliban control of Afghanistan, for example, poppy production dropped dramatically; since the U.S. has been there production has again increased. Kerlikowske noted that when the Taliban wiped out poppy production, it picked up in the so-called "Golden Triangle" area of Southeast Asia. "Now, doesn't that really call into question putting any money into getting rid of opium poppies in Afghanistan?" Foster asked. "Economically, the trade-off has nothing to do with reducing the damage of drugs in the United States."
Yes, Kerlikowske noted, that's true. So, Kucinich noted, "the effectiveness" of international interdiction programs "seems to be near zero according to what you said, which is a very interesting thing from a policy point of view."
Ultimately, it seems the big budget winners aren't really the most strategic.
"So what parts of your budget are the most effective and cost-effective in reducing illicit drug use?" Kucinich asked.
"I think that is the question that everyone would like to see answered," Kerlikowske replied. "That's what I'm asking you; and you are the director. You want to give it a try?" Kucinich asked.
"The most cost-effective approaches," Kerlikowske said, "would be in prevention, and the most cost-effective approaches would be in treatment."
So, at the end of the day, the truth is this: While the draft of the nation's drug strategy includes some progressive ideas, the budget belies any notion that those approaches have been given much hope of near-term success. In other words, it seems like it may be a new year, and a new administration, but it's still the same old drug game. "If you accept the fact that these drugs are going to be produced one way or another in some place in the world," Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the subcommittee, "you need to manage that to minimize the harms associated with it, whether continuing with a prohibition policy or moving in the direction of regulation and decriminalization. That would be a strategic policy."