War on drugs

The Drug War's Hidden Budget

Author: Paul Armentano
Date: Mar 18, 2003
Views: 2385

The Drug War's Hidden Budget

Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
in Washington, D.C. -- a not-for-profit think tank which argues for
the liberalization of marijuana laws.

This article first appeared on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Web
site. It is reprinted with permission.

Numbers never lie. Or do they? With government, it's simply a matter
of who's keeping the books. Take America's so-called war on drugs, for
instance. Last year, Congress earmarked nearly $19 billion -- nearly
twice what it spent on military operations in Afghanistan -- to
enforce U.S. drug laws.

This year's totals, however, are remarkably different. According to
the White House's 2003 "National Drug Control Strategy," released in
February, the Bush administration will now only spend some $11.2
billion fighting drugs.

How can this be? Is some part of government actually shrinking? On
closer inspection, it's clear that this year's supposed
belt-tightening is only illusory. Thanks to new Enron-styled
accounting procedures initiated by the White House, America's drug war
costs a lot less than it used to -- at least on paper.

In a little publicized announcement last year, officials from the
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) revealed
that they had developed a "new methodology" for reporting the federal
drug budget -- which had grown from less than $2 billion annually in
1982 to $18.8 billion last year. Under this scheme, only funding for
agencies involved in so- called "primary" drug war activities is now
tabulated in the national anti-drug budget. As a result, more than
two-thirds of the agencies included in past years' budgets are
conspicuously missing from this year's financial totals.

By far the largest and most startling financial manipulations are
within the Department of Justice (DOJ), which reported a reduction of
more than $5.5 billion dollars in drug-war related expenses between
2002 and 2003. Remarkably, the majority of costs removed are those
associated with the incarceration and care of federal drug prisoners.

How so? "Based on the criterion that they are associated with the
secondary consequences of the government's primary drug law
enforcement and investigation activities," such expenses will no
longer be tabulated in the federal drug budget, the ONDCP explained.

Other DOJ departments and activities related to drug law enforcement,
investigation and prosecution are also deceptively missing from this
year's tally. For example, annual funding for INTERPOL, the U.S.
Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney's office, the federal "asset
forfeiture fund" and community policing are noticeably absent.

Millions of dollars in annual funding for additional agencies
previously tabulated in the national drug war budget, such as the
Department of Education, have been reduced without explanation, while
others -- including the Department of Transportation ($594 million in
2002), Department of Interior ($39 million in 2002) and the Department
of Agriculture ($29 million in 2002) -- have been expunged from the
books all together.

To make matters even more confusing, the 2003 "National Drug Control
Strategy" makes virtually no reference to the White House's new
accounting procedures, and manipulates past years' budgets to reflect
the Feds' latest "fuzzy math" retroactively. As a result, the White
House is now claiming that America's war on drugs has never cost more
than $11 billion per year, even though the office itself previously
recorded surpassing that spending milestone in 1991.

If you're searching for the motivation behind the Drug Czar's
deceptive accounting, look no further than the polls. In recent years,
nationwide surveys have consistently shown that the majority of
Americans believe the drug war's current "do drugs, do time" approach
to be ineffective, fiscally costly and doomed to fail. A Pew Research
Center poll conducted in 2001 found that 74 percent of the respondents
felt that the war on drugs could not be won.

When given the alternative, nearly seven out of 10 Americans say they
support treatment for convicted drug users rather than incarceration
-- supported by an ABC news.com poll conducted in March 2001.
Nevertheless, despite the public sentiment, the percentage of federal
dollars dedicated to drug treatment and education programs has
consistently been minuscule compared to those earmarked for
enforcement and interdiction.

Until now.

At the same time the White House is concealing billions in drug war
related prison and interdiction costs. Investigations of this year's
budget by analysts from Common Sense for Drug Policy and the Drug
Policy Alliance reveal that the Drug Czar's office is inflating their
expenditures on drug treatment by including hundreds of millions of
dollars in alcohol treatment spending, which by law is specifically
excluded from the ONDCP's scope of activities.

As a result, the ONDCP claims that this year's budget allots nearly
equal amounts on drug treatment as it does drug enforcement -- up
dramatically from past years' ratios, which favored enforcement nearly
two to one -- despite making no substantive spending changes.

Ultimately, the goal of all this smoke and mirrors is to create the
perception of a kinder, gentler and less expensive drug war --
qualities favored by the American public but seldom, if ever,
delivered by federal drug policy. Of course, beneath the clouds it's
still business as usual. The only question is: Who's going to report
the Feds to the SEC?

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