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GAO: Data too fuzzy to measure drug war

Although the drug czar says usage and supply are shriveling, a report says his stats are sketchy.

By DAVID ADAMS
Published December 24, 2005


MIAMI - It has never been easy measuring success in the drug war. It's an illegal trade after all, and no one on Wall Street is tracking its performance.

But now comes a disturbing new congressional report that raises doubts about recent upbeat claims by the White House.

The 52-page report released this month by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, questions the reliability of key U.S. government drug trafficking data. Official stats are so sketchy and unreliable as to be almost worthless, the report says.

"Data to assess whether operations ... contribute to ... disrupting the illicit drug market or the overall goal of reducing the rate of drug usage in the United States are problematic," the report found.

Little effort is being made to evaluate performance of the 50 to 60 agencies involved, in violation of a federal law that requires them to be accountable, the GAO added.

The report also warns that the diversion of military assets to Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to hamper the ability of U.S. law enforcement to intercept drug shipments in the future.

"The drug war has fallen flat on its face," said John Carnevale, a former Budget and Planning director in the White House drug czar's office. "They are spending huge amounts of money, and they can't tell you if their program is working."

The report has several potential implications for continued political support for current drug war spending, which amounts to $40-billion to $50-billion annually. It also comes at a time of rising political uncertainty in South America after the election last week of a coca growers union leader, Evo Morales, as president of Bolivia. Another anti-U.S. peasant leader is a leading contender in elections in Peru in April.

U.S. officials have touted a five-year, $6-billion counterdrug effort in the Andean drug-producing countries - principally Colombia, Peru and Bolivia - as responsible for recent official estimates of a large drop in cocaine and heroin production.

"There were those who did not believe it was possible to change the availability of cocaine in the United States," U.S. "drug czar" John Walters said last month during a visit to Colombia. "There's no question that's happened."

Walters cited a 19 percent increase in cocaine street prices in the United States between February and September 2005, accompanied by a 15 percent drop in purity. U.S. officials argue that price and purity levels are key indicators of disruption in the supply of drugs, either due to eradication of South American coca crops used to make cocaine, or interdiction of drugs smuggled into the country.

Some drug trade experts question such assumptions, saying fluctuations in price and purity could be due to increased demand by U.S. drug consumers.

Critics of U.S. drug policy point to the GAO report as evidence that positive pronouncements by the drug czar's office cannot be trusted. "What this report shows is that we need to take the government's claims with a grain of salt, and a whole shaker in places," said John Walsh, a drug expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, a private policy watchdog.

Walsh and others accuse the drug czar's office of putting an overly favorable spin on the fuzzy data, as well as ignoring less positive news.

The drug czar's office sat on a November 2004 report it commissioned by the Rand Corp., a California-based nonprofit research organization, which found that drugs were more available than ever and that prices had in fact fallen.

The drug czar's office turned around and commissioned a second report from the Virginia-based Institute for Defense Analyses, which found prices were rising.

"They (the drug czar's office) lack credibility unless they can explain such a wide difference," said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland drug expert who directed Rand's research.

He noted that the Rand report was well documented and peer reviewed. Reuter said he was also "generally skeptical" of data in the IDA report. Accurate data takes months to compile, he said.

Other critics point to the IDA's lackluster record in drug research, noting that it was dropped by the drug czar's office in the 1990s after alleged flaws in its methodology.

Carnevale, who worked in the White House under three administrations and continues to support the war on drugs, accused Walters of trying to "simplify" data to meet preconceived beliefs. "He thinks the cocaine market is on the brink of collapse," he said. "We are spending all this money so the price (of cocaine) must go up."

Officials in the White House drug czar's office did not return phone calls this week. But they have disputed the GAO's findings in published comments.

"We have more data and more analysts working on this out of our office than anyone," David Murray, a special assistant to Walters, told the Washington Times. "We feel we have some of the best information in the world on the issue. We are trying to make sense of a business whose very core element is hiding from plain view."

That kind of defense is wearing thin, critics say.

Cocaine seizures have risen more than 60 percent since 2000, from 117 tons to 196 tons, the GAO found. But beyond that reliable data is scarce.

For example, the GAO found a White House calculation of the amount of cocaine entering the United States in 2004 - 325 metric tons to 675 metric tons - to be too broad to be "useful."

Other figures put the estimates far higher, noting that official data relies on incomplete satellite imagery of South America. Satellite surveillance cannot accurately detect newly planted coca crops and also has difficulty mapping small plots under two-thirds of an acre in size. Experts say coca farmers have increasingly switched to smaller plots to avoid detection, as well as sowing new varieties of shade-grown coca that are harder to see from the air.

"We basically have no idea how much (coca) is being grown," said Adam Isacson, a South America drug expert at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

The White House also says drug use among youths is dropping. While this may be true, the GAO noted that the number of U.S. cocaine users remained constant at about 2-million. "Other sources estimate the number of chronic and occasional cocaine users may be as high as 6-million," the report stated. Critics say the White House has deliberately downplayed data on adult drug use.

The GAO report also criticized the office of the drug czar, officially known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy, for ignoring previous recommendations for improving drug data.

The GAO highlighted a 2001 report by the National Research Council, a private body of National Academy experts who advise the federal government, which was critical of drug data collection. While the drug czar's office spends $780-million each year to monitor illegal drug use and conduct research on drug policy, the GAO said less than 15 percent of this amount goes to research on law enforcement.

"Funding for research on enforcement policy is minimal, particularly when compared with the amount spent on carrying out enforcement policy," the NRC report stated. "The central problem, in a nutshell, is that the nation lacks the data needed to inform policy."

NRC repeatedly found that key data was "missing" or "inadequate."

Its conclusion has since become a motto for those seeking to reform drug policy. "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 effect," the NRC said.

It's still too early to tell what impact the GAO report will have in Congress. The drug war has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support, though criticism of the drug czar has been mounting.

But drug policy critics do not have high expectations. "Too few people have the stomach to look at the seamy underside of whether it's working," Walsh said.

[Last modified December 24, 2005, 01:10:16]


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