of the Drug War
by Paul Armentano
by Paul Armentano
Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics by Matthew B.
Robinson and Renee G. Scherlen (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 2007); 268 pages; $27.95.
One war appears to be going well for the United States and its
allies these days: the drug war.
That was the lead in dozens of
U.S. newspapers in response to a June 2007 United Nations report
claiming that U.S. drug policy has led to a substantial decline in
illicit drug use. Chances are the author of the story hadn’t read a
copy of Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical
Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control
He ought to.
Written by a pair of Appalachian State associate professors –
Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen – Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug
War Statistics seeks to provide an objective, “fair assessment
of America’s drug war” since the passage of the 1988 federal
Anti-Drug Abuse Act. (The law, passed by Congress at the height of
the 1980s drug-war Zeitgeist, created the White House Office of
National Drug Control Policy – known colloquially as the “drug
czar’s” office – and pronounced, “It is the declared policy of the
United States Government to create a Drug-Free America by 1995.”)
Their assessment is nothing short of scathing.
Since the ONDCP’s founding in 1989, “trends in drug use, drug
treatment, deaths attributed to drug use, emergency-room mentions of
drug use, drug availability, drug purity, and drug prices are
inconsistent with the goals of [the federal government],” the
authors assert. “Yet, during this same time period, funding for the
drug war grew tremendously and costs of the drug war expanded as
Of course, such a critical appraisal of U.S. drug policy is
hardly unique. What sets Robinson and Scherlen’s evaluation apart is
their methodology. Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics
consists primarily of the authors’ evaluation of the federal
anti-drug agency’s annual National Drug Control Strategies. These
reports, issued by the ONDCP at the beginning of each year, outline
the agency’s policy objectives (“Stop [illicit drug] use before it
starts; heal America’s drug users; [and] disrupt the [illicit drug]
market.”) and, in theory, provide statistical “proof” to Congress
and the public of the drug war’s ongoing success.
Under close scrutiny, however, it is troublingly apparent that
(a) the agency is failing to achieve its stated goals, and (b) the
drug czar’s office is manipulating and falsifying statistics in its
public reports in order to claim successes that are not warranted.
Robinson and Scherlen affirm that there is “overwhelming
evidence” that the ONDCP is “consistently making false and dishonest
claims” regarding the drug war’s perceived progress, and the authors
cite more than 80 instances of the agency’s relying on
“inappropriate and dishonest uses of statistics to prove its case.”
Examples of the agency’s duplicity include:
- Manipulating its budgeting techniques to exclude law
enforcement and correctional costs attributable to the drug war in
order to give “the appearance of increasing the proportion of
funding for treatment in the drug war budget.”
- Creating the impression of declines in illicit drug use by
beginning its trend analysis in 1979 (the peak year of
self-reported illicit drug use in the United States). By doing so,
the agency attempts to “show visually that drug use is down when
it has actually not decreased during [the ONDCP’s] existence.”
(Authors further note that although the agency consistently claims
credit for alleged declines in drug use, the ONDCP fails to accept
any responsibility for increases in drug use among the general
- Claiming that the black-market prices for illicit drugs are
holding steady as a result of U.S. drug policies, when, “in fact,
they are generally declining.”
- Alleging that most U.S. drug arrests and incarcerations are
for trafficking offenses, when, in fact, approximately 80 percent
of all drug arrests are for possession offenses.
- Abandoning previously stated goals without comment, and
replacing them with new (and in recent years, far fewer) goals.
Though the ONDCP “generally does not … admit failure in meeting
[its] goals … it [does] use its failure to call for stepped-up
efforts in the drug war,” the authors note.
Of the available critiques of U.S. drug policy, Robinson and
Scherlen’s work proves to be one of the most thorough and
irrefutable, as it relies solely on the ONDCP’s own rhetoric and
data sources to debunk the agency’s various claims. In the authors’
final analysis, they determine that the agency consistently and
overwhelmingly fails to act in a fair, honest, or transparent manner
– as required by law.
Instead, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
predominantly operates “as a generator and defender of a given
ideology in the drug war,” Robinson and Scherlen conclude:
This ideology asserts that illicit drugs are always bad, never
acceptable, supply-driven, and must be fought through an ongoing
war. This ideology asserts that fighting a “war” on drugs is the
only way to reduce drug use and achieve related goals.
In theory, one would expect that policies that do not achieve
their objectives (such as the drug war) would be discontinued….
Our assessment reveals that the ONDCP has not achieved its goals
in the years since its creation. Thus, a rational response to this
situation would be to terminate the ONDCP. This would save tax
money, alleviate government inefficiency, and reduce the size of
government. If accompanied by a reassessment of U.S. policy toward
drugs, it might even result in better outcomes with regard to drug
use and abuse in the United States.
March 1, 2008
Paul Armentano [send him
mail] is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML
Foundation in Washington, DC. He is the author of "Emerging
Clinical Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids: A Review of the
Scientific Literature" (2007, NORML Foundation).
Copyright © 2008 Future of