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Tearing Apart Bush's Drug Plan

By focusing on addiction treatment and prevention, Bush is doing exactly what Clinton did: talking treatment and funding law enforcement.
 
 
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Judging by recent media coverage, President Bush's new drug policy is much more liberal than Clinton's, focusing primarily on treatment and prevention and providing major new funding for such initiatives. "The best way to affect supply is to reduce demand for drugs," Bush said as he announced his strategy.

The plan "marks a sharp turn in anti-drug policy," says the L.A. Times, "emphasizes treatment" according to the Buffalo News, and "should be applauded for changing our course" the Georgia Macon-Telegraph asserts. TV coverage also largely parroted the administration's line.

To its credit, the Washington Post recognized that it was being spun, and guarded its language, saying that "aides described [the plan] as an effort to reorient federal drug policy toward treatment rather than enforcement" instead of stating this as a matter of fact the way most others did.

Still, few papers -- notably the New York Times and USA Today -- bothered to do the simple math required to find out that Bush is doing exactly what Clinton did: talking treatment and funding law enforcement. And while the media was sharply critical of Clinton for such double-talk, Bush has largely gotten a pass.

Here's what's the numbers really show. Bush's steepest jump in spending goes to what researchers say is one of the least effective ways of fighting drugs: interdiction in foreign countries. According to a study by the Rand Corporation, it would take 11 times as much money to reduce demand for cocaine by 1 percent using interdiction than it would to do so via treatment spending; similar figures are believed to apply for other drugs.

But in Bush's plan, spending for interdiction jumps 10 percent while drug treatment spending only rises 6 percent. This actually means the policy shifts the balance of enforcement/treatment spending away from treatment. No one in the press thought it worth mentioning, but Bush's budget actually cuts prevention by 3 percent.

So, overall, the budget is still overwhelmingly weighted towards law enforcement and foreign interdiction programs -- less than 1/3 of the funds go to treatment and prevention, and much of the prevention budget will be spent on anti-drug commercials and school programs of doubtful efficacy. Providers estimate that 90 percent of the nearly 4 million addicts the government believes to need treatment currently do not have access to it.

Meanwhile, though Clinton increased treatment spending by approximately 33 percent during the course of his administration (roughly 10 percent per year, though three years saw cuts), the media calls Bush's 6 percent jump a major shift. This is nonsense. The pattern of spending on "reducing demand" (which includes treatment and prevention) as opposed to supply-side measures through Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II shows few differences Reagan cut spending on demand proportionally from 40 percent to 31 percent, Bush I got it back up to 34 percent and Clinton bounced around between 31 and 36 percent. None of them ever came close to balancing the effort -- let alone weighting it towards treatment and prevention.

Bush's plan promises to cut drug use by 25 percent in five years -- still pie-in-the-sky, clearly, but a tad more realistic than Congress's 1988 plan which had America entirely drug-free by 1995,

And at least W.'s latest proposal does reflect one positive trend. Politicians now recognize that they have to at least talk treatment to stay in the mainstream. A recent poll conducted by Peter D. Hart research associates for George Soros' Open Society Institute found that three-fourths of the public believes that addicts should be treated, not incarcerated and 56 percent now oppose mandatory sentencing laws.

Let's hope reality catches up with rhetoric rapidly.