7 Reasons Why the National Drug Control Budget is Meaningless


March 14, 2014 - By Michael Collins

Last week, the Drug Czar’s office at ONDCP released the 2015 National Drug Control Budget. Here’s why it should be read with skepticism:

The budget is based on guesswork and faulty arithmetic. Many experts have concluded that the budget is “imprecise”, meaning that the numbers included are often inaccurate estimations that disguise the real cost of the drug war.

Nobody in Congress pays attention to this budget. Partly because it is full of inaccurate estimations, appropriators in Congress (the ones who actually crunch the numbers and decide where federal money goes) do not look at this budget when making federal spending decisions. They are more inclined to look at the budgets of individual departments, such as the Department of Justice, for guidance. This budget is simply a PR exercise by ONDCP.

This budget does not come close to estimating what we waste each year on the failed war on drugs. The budget is not “national”, as its name claims; it is federal. It only (inaccurately) accounts for what the federal government spends, and does not consider the huge amounts spent by states and localities are spending.

The budget represents drug policy repetition rather than drug policy reform. Despite ONDCP’s attempts to coopt the “reform” mantra, the budget simply continues many of the programs that embody the failed war on drugs, such as the DEA and HIDTA.

The claim that more money is spent on prevention and treatment than anywhere else is patently false. Through a sleight of hand, the ONDCP claims to be spending more money on treatment and prevention than enforcement, but that is only because it has subdivided the enforcement section of the budget into three arbitrary categories:  domestic law enforcement, interdiction, and international. Combine these three categories and you see that the U.S. government spends 50% more on classic drug war programs than on treatment or prevention.

The budget vastly underrepresents international drug war spending. We know that U.S. financial support has fueled drug war violence in places like Mexico and Central America, but ONDCP seeks to play down this role. The figure it gives for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ($458.3 million) is half the real figure that the Bureau requested ($1.118 billion). ONDCP also does not include figures for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) or International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, two costly programs that have a strong association with U.S. funding for the drug war overseas.

Despite its rhetoric, the supply and demand spending figures show that drug war spending has not really changed under the Obama Administration. Even though ONDCP has tried to manipulate the figures to make it look like they are spending more on prevention and treatment than any other area, a table buried on the last page of the document shows us that the overall trend towards drug war spending  has changed little since the early Bush years.  Supply reduction (read: enforcement) has consistently taken the lion’s share of drug control spending.

The truth is that the 2015 National Drug Control Budget largely leaves the public in the dark about the costs and consequences of the drug war. The “reform” that ONDCP tries to espouse is almost entirely absent.

We must hope that a day will come when we have a drug control budget that truly shifts spending towards prevention and treatment, and away from failed drug war programs. Until then, this document will remain meaningless.

Michael Collins is a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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