Federal drug war is failing on multiple fronts, government watchdog says
By CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM | The Washington Post | Published: December 9, 2015
WASHINGTON — Federal drug control efforts have failed to meet any goals to curb illegal drug use and related deaths set five years ago, new testimony from the Government Accountability Office concludes.
In 2010, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the White House office that oversees all drug control spending, set a number of ambitious goals to guide drug policy during the Obama administration. The agency planned 10 percent to 15 percent reductions in monthly drug use among teenagers and adults, overall chronic drug use, drug-induced death and disease, and drugged driving rates.
This year is the deadline for achieving these targeted reductions. And while official data for this year won't be available for some time, the latest available data strongly suggest that none of these goals will be achieved this year, according to the GAO and the ONDCP. On a number of them, no progress has been made. On several, the indicators have gotten worse. Overall, the GAO found that the federal government has only made progress on one of the goals — the overall rate of teen drug use.
Of most concern from a policy perspective is the lack of progress on reducing drug-related deaths. The ONDCP set a goal of reducing drug-related deaths from 39,147 in 2009 to 33,275 this year. But in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, 46,471 people died due to drugs — a nearly 20 percent increase over the baseline.
The ONDCP notes that if you take marijuana use rates out of the equation, the picture on several of the drug measures looks much better. "The apparent lack of progress on several other measures is entirely attributable to the increase in marijuana use in recent years," ONDCP press secretary Mario Moreno Zepeda said in an email. "For example, the 2015 reduction targets for past 30 day use of illicit drugs among youth (12 to 17 years old) and young adults (18 to 25 years old) would have been met by 2014 if marijuana was excluded."
Federal data show that since 2009, past-month marijuana use increased among young adults, and essentially stayed flat among teens.
But drug reform advocates aren't surprised at what the GAO describes as an overall lack of progress. "The government continues to fail in its drug policy goals because it still places too much emphasis on enforcement, rather than treating drug use as a public health issue," Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance said in an email. "The drug control budget still dedicates over $2 billion annually to the DEA — a failed and flawed agency — while harm reduction and treatment are woefully underfunded. Unless this changes, the government will continue to fall short in its aims."
Indeed, budgetary numbers released by the ONDCP last month indicate that the feds are looking to increase spending on drug enforcement measures that have so far yielded little results. Total federal drug control spending is expected to hit a new high of $27.6 billion in fiscal year 2016, according to the ONDCP. Less than half of those funds will go to drug treatment and prevention programs. About 55 percent will go to enforcement-based "supply reduction" measures that often have been controversial and ineffective.
About $1.3 billion will go to the Department of Defense for counter-narcotics activities overseas. The Department of Homeland Security will get $4.2 billion. And $8.1 billion will go to the Department of Justice, including $2.4 billion for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
All told, the bill for American drug enforcement adds up to more than $202 for every taxpayer.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, notes that the House of Representatives will likely consider whether to reauthorize the ONDCP next year. "Reauthorization is the perfect time for Congress to set new national drug policy goals," he said in an email.