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US Drug Policy: What's the Fact?

Assert a "fact" often enough and people will believe it. United States counternarcotics policy is misguided, we are told by various specialists, because more than two-thirds of the $14.3 billion in federal government appropriations this year is spent on the "supply side" of the problem.

By that they mean that the money is not being spent mostly at home - where drugs are consumed - on prevention, enforcement, and rehabilitation. Rather this money mostly goes abroad - where the drugs are produced - and is spent on such activities as crop eradication, crop substitution, and interdiction.

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This "fact" is not new. It has been asserted for years. Only the numbers have varied, by a billion or two a year. Federal government expenditures for dealing with the country's narcotics problem have increased over the past decade - from about $4 billion in the mid-1980s to the $15 billion proposed for 1997.

And at one level, this "fact" is true. These are the correct budget figures, and these are the programs for which they are spent.

On two other levels, however, such a basic fact hides more than it reveals. First, this figure refers only to total direct federal government expenditures, even though most of the campaign against drugs in the US has been and continues to be fought by state and local governments. Schools, police, jails, hospitals, and clinics are mainly state and local responsibilities. These institutions are funded primarily by public resources from state and local governments, not from Washington. Rough estimates of counter-drug expenditures by the 50 states are at least twice the federal budget allocation; and the 38,000 counties, cities, and towns spend more than four times the federal allocation.

As a nation, then, including all levels of government, we are spending in the neighborhood of $100 billion a year to deal with our illegal drug habit. Of that total, only a small proportion - less than 10 percent - goes to the supply side of the equation.

Second, foreign policy is, under the Constitution, wholly and solely the responsibility of the federal government. All the cocaine and heroin consumed in the US, and much of the marijuana as well, is produced abroad. Therefore, it is both logical and appropriate that most of our federal government's budget allocation to deal with the country's drug problem is spent on the supply side - from Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia; to Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines; as well as Turkey, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

Only Washington can spend on foreign policy. Reducing production in, and the flow of illegal drugs from, other countries has been and continues to be a high priority of American diplomacy, and should remain so.

There are ample grounds for a vigorous critique of current counter-narcotics policies. Prevention and rehabilitation should receive more emphasis. Interdiction is demonstrably more effective than congressionally mandated crop eradication and substitution initiatives. Military-to-military antidrug support programs risk unwanted and unintended consequences related to strengthened armed forces in newly democratic nations.

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And finally, the vigorous use of the presidency and the drug czar positions as bully pulpits against illegal substance abuse has been notable by its infrequency during the last four years. What we should be doing, however, is basing our critique on "facts" that mislead and obscure rather than clarify and enlighten.

*David Scott Palmer teaches Latin American politics and United States foreign policy at Boston University and served from 1989 to 1994 on the Working Group on International Drug Trafficking Issues of the University of Miami and the North-South Center.

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