National Post (Canada)

19 Apr 2001

By Peter Morton

Effectiveness Unknown

WASHINGTON – Governments in the United States spend twice as much each year
on combating illegal drugs as the country spent on the 1991 Gulf War, a
White House-ordered report says.

But despite the US$30-billion annual cost to federal, state and municipal
governments, there is little research on whether the crackdown on illegal
drugs is effective, said the National Research Council, which did the study.

“It’s pretty distressing,” said Charles Manski, a professor of economics at
Northwestern University who was chairman of the study committee.

“Neither the necessary data systems nor the research infrastructure to
gauge the usefulness of drug-control enforcement policies exists,” he said

“It is unconscionable for this country to continue to carry out a public
policy of this magnitude and cost without any way of knowing whether, and
to what extent, it is having the desired result.”

The United States began its crackdown on drug trafficking and usage about
20 years ago, launching such programs as “zero tolerance” and DARE, an
acronym for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. It has also stepped up
eradication programs in such drug-producing countries as Colombia, where it
has pledged US$7.5-billion to try to wipe out coca production.

Federal government spending alone has increased tenfold since 1981 to
US$19-billion a year, resulting in 1.6 million people being arrested for
drug use in 1999, triple the number in 1980. Another 289,000 drug offenders
were sent to state prisons, 12 times the number in 1980.

But Mr. Manski said little effort is made to establish whether
incarcerating drug users and traffickers is an effective deterrent.
“Prevention is always better than incarceration, but no one knows whether
anyone was dissuaded from using drugs because of the current penalties,” he

Only 15% of the US$780-million spent on researching drug policy goes toward
examining the effectiveness of imprisonment, says the report, which has yet
to be released.

Simple research such as comparing unemployment rates to the proliferation
of drug dealers in inner cities has yet to be done. “Do teenagers sell
drugs because they don’t have other jobs?” Mr. Manski said. “No one knows.”

The committee found existing drug-use monitoring programs somewhat useful,
but “strikingly inadequate to support the full range of policy decisions
that the nation must make.”

It found little work — and little government money — is being used to
understand drug use. As well, there is very little information on drug
pricing, although one of the goals of increased enforcement is to drive up
drug prices to make them too expensive.

There is even less known about some of the high-profile drug prevention
programs launched during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. No research has
been done, the report found, on whether “zero tolerance” drug enforcement
programs have had an effect on slowing drug shipments into the country.
What little research was done found the DARE program has had little impact
on illegal drug use, it added.

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