Drug Czar’s Office Masks True Costs of War on Drugs in Federal Budget Released Today

Press Release February 11, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 or Shayna Samuels at 646-523-6961

Using new accounting procedures, this year’s White House Drug Strategy, released today, looks different from past years, with little actual change. This year’s drug strategy for the first time ever conceals billions of dollars spent on incarcerating drug offenders and certain law enforcement efforts by excluding these categories from the budget, while including inflated expenditures on treatment services. Recent polling by Peter Hart Research Associates shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans want treatment, not incarceration, for nonviolent drug offenders. The 2003 Drug Strategy plays to this public sentiment by appearing as if it’s focused on treatment, but in reality it’s perpetuating the same reliance on law enforcement and interdiction as ever.

“The drug war has always been a money pit, but this is fuzzy math at its worst,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. “Americans cry out for less incarceration and more drug treatment, so the drug czar tries to make the administration look compassionate when it’s not. We’re getting the same punitive, draconian policies as ever — does he really think we’ll fall for it?”

An analysis of the new budget numbers revealed that by hiding the costs of incarceration, military activities and other known costs of the drug war, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was able to bring their enforcement to treatment ratios more into line with public sentiment. Last year, the Office stated it spent 33% of the drug war budget on drug treatment and prevention activities while 67% went to law enforcement and interdiction. This year, despite making no substantive spending changes, the Office claims to be spending 47% on drug treatment and only 53% on law enforcement activities. In addition, the office appears to inflate its numbers by including alcohol treatment which by law is specifically excluded from their scope of responsibilities.

The White House’s 2003 National Drug Control Strategy is deceptive in numerous ways:

The new 2003 Drug Strategy shows the federal government spending only about $11 billion dollars a year, when the real cost (more accurately reflected in last year’s drug strategy) is around $20 billion. ONDCP said it will not count drug war expenditures by many law enforcement agencies, while acknowledging that these agencies will remain focused on drug control efforts.

By reducing reported law enforcement costs, eliminating reported prison costs, and artificially boosting reported drug treatment expenditures, ONDCP Director John Walters attempts to make the drug war look more compassionate. Although the actual drug war budget maintains focused on supply reduction (with nearly 70 percent of the budget), the new drug strategy makes the assertion that spending is almost split evenly between supply and demand efforts. This distortion makes the drug war look more humane, and makes it harder for drug treatment and prevention groups to advocate for needed additional funding.

ONDCP reduces the official estimate of federal drug war costs by eliminating “agencies that mainly focus on the consequences associated with the activities of other primary counterdrug agencies.” This means, among other things, not counting the costs of imprisoning federal nonviolent drug offenders at about $3 billion a year. According to the ONDCP, “Although these [prison costs] are real costs to society, they do not factor into the core of drug law enforcement decisions made by national policymakers.” Yet these costs result directly from federal drug war policies.

Although ONDCP stops counting many law enforcement expenses, it appears to continue counting many “drug treatment and prevention” expenses for agencies not actually involved in drug war efforts. It may also fraudulently increase the amount of federal drug treatment expenditures reported to Congress and the public by counting money spent reducing alcohol abuse, even though ONDCP’s charter specifically excludes alcohol from its scope of responsibilities.

“These changes are especially alarming because they leave Members of Congress and the American public without accurate information about the real costs of the failed war on drugs,” said Nadelmann. “Computing the drug war budget without incarceration is like computing the Defense budget without soldiers. That’s far fetched, even by Washington standards.”

The President’s National Drug Control Strategy (2003) can be downloaded from the ONDCP website.

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A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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