The Confessions of a War-on-Drugs Beancounter
The email from my editor bore a subject head that was hard to ignore: "story you just gotta cover." Attached was a news report of a congressional hearing where federal law enforcement officials testified that about 50 planes have been forced or shot down by the United States and its allies in the so-called war on drugs. Congress was finally taking a hard look at the due-process-challenged blast-'em-out-of-the-sky policy. The inquiry had been prompted by the deaths of Veronica Bowers, a missionary in Peru, and her baby daughter, who were killed by gunfire when their civilian plane was attacked by a Peruvian military jet that was acting in concert with a CIA-hired surveillance plane. And members of the committee -- including Representative Dan Burton, a Republican best known for pursuing anti-Clinton conspiracy tales -- were outraged that the CIA had hired out this sensitive surveillance work and that some information regarding the Agency's role in the tragedy remained classified.
This was a helluva story: US-backed war-on-drugs warriors killing Americans. But I had no new info to add to what had come out about the shoot-down and the use of CIA contractors. Still, I like making editors happy (note to editors: believe it or not) and promised to find another piece of the war on drugs to chew over. After all, the Bush Administration has signaled that it intends to step up the futile efforts on this front, most notably by nominating Representative Asa Hutchinson, a congressman who has said "elimination [of drugs] -- not containment -- should be our goal," to be head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and John P. Walters, a crusading hardliner, to be drug czar.
I could produce a diatribe against either, particularly Walters. A top-deputy to William Bennett, the drug czar in Bush I, Walters has emphasized law enforcement over treatment, advocated drug-testing throughout the federal government (USDA egg inspectors, watch out!), and called for more military involvement in anti-drug efforts. In 1995 he testified before Congress that firing upon aircraft suspected of drug smuggling was necessary to "save American lives," and the following year he urged continued US support the Peruvian shoot-down policy. He has dismissed the notion that too many people are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. (That drug "sentences are too long harsh and...the criminal justice system is unjustly punishing young black men," he says, "...are among the great urban myths of our time.") He has embraced the "war metaphor" for the anti-drug program. Walters -- who has scoffed at Americans who use marijuana to relieve serious pain -- is no compassionate conservative.
But taking a poke at this retro-drug-buster would be too damn easy. Besides, other journalists already were slicing and dicing Walters. I needed another angle. And one fell into my lap.
A fellow called and asked to see me in order to discuss a book I had written. We met for lunch, and at the end of the conversation, I asked what he did for a living. He told me that he worked at one of the many Washington research firms as a mid-level evaluator of data and statistics. The self-deprecating manner in which he described the job made it sound a wee bit dull. Rather than change the subject -- and out of politeness -- I inquired if he had any interesting clients. He shrugged, as if to indicate, "not really," but then said, "well, the Office of National Drug Control Policy" -- that is, the White House drug czar.
My curiosity was raised and I asked what he had done for the ONDCP. Number-crunching, he said -- statistical analysis, supply-side modeling, survey evaluation, and such. And? I asked. Some of their numbers are not on the level, he said. I quickly arranged to talk to him again.
Two days later, moments after Bush officially nominated Walters to head the ONDCP, I was on the phone with this guy. I can't use his name -- he's still working in this field. I could call him Deep Algorithm or Joseph K. (in honor of his run-in with bureaucratic absurdity), but let's just refer to him as Bob.
Bob and his firm conducted several studies for the ONDCP in the late 1990s. One found that when major overseas interdiction actions -- such as the shoot-down campaign in Peru -- were tracked against the street price of cocaine in the United States from the mid-1980s to 1997, the numbers were hardly encouraging. Through this period the price fell drastically, defying the premise that such activity would cause prices to rise. "That should scare the hell out of any drug-policy person," says Bob. The ONDCP, he says, "didn't like" this data.
Boosting the price of cocaine is a fundamental goal of the conventional drug-fighters. The thinking is, obviously, that as the price goes up, use will go down. But, Bob says, "their most dramatic finding" was that "you can't look at data and say price in and of itself controls the numbers of users over all." Consequently, this meant that increasing pressure on smugglers in order to force a price hike would not necessarily retard use in the long run. "It is almost impossible to infer how price affects demand," he notes. Moreover, Bob adds, there is a big cost to raising the price of cocaine. Higher prices might cause some casual drug users to find another form of amusement for a while. But one result of higher prices is that the purity of the product increases. "Jacking up prices really sticks it to dependents," he explains. "There will be more ODs."
In addition to looking at the supply side of the drug trade, Bob was asked to work on studies evaluating the effectiveness of the ONDCP's media strategy. In response to data suggesting drug use was on the rise among young people, President Clinton proposed (and Congress approved) an anti-drug propaganda blitz. The multibillion-dollar "National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign" was unveiled in 1998, and don't-do-drug ads -- sponsored by the ONDCP and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America -- were disseminated nationally through television, radio, billboards and the media. Remember the "frying pan" ad? A winsome young woman holds up an egg. "This is your brain." She holds up a frying pan. "This is heroin. This is what happens to your brain after snorting heroin." Sa-Mack! The pan wallops the egg, and then she violently whacks away at the rest of the kitchen.
Bob's shop found that many of the supposed media buys -- which were being arranged by high-profile advertising firms -- never took place. "That caused a huge stink," he recalls. "At some point we were missing thousands of ads." And commercials designed for kids were running at ten at night. But this matter, Bob maintains, was shoved aside at ONDCP. More importantly, the analysis mounted by Bob and his colleagues -- who looked at survey research and focus group results -- found that the campaign was of questionable effectiveness.
"In certain markets and among certain demographics, there was an awareness of the ads," Bob notes. But there were no signs this led to change in behavior. "One disturbing thing for me," he recalls, "was that we were interviewing third and fourth graders and talking to them about coke, ecstasy and PCP. Maybe there were one or two miscreants in these groups who already knew about this stuff. But I worried we were getting precontemplators" -- a term used by drug policy wonks to describe young kids not yet drawn to drugs -- "to contemplate" drug use.
Bob and his workmates combed through thousands of pages of focus group reports looking for the type of soundbite "that ONDCP was interested in hearing. It's cynical , I know....I'm disgusted. We'd find one good line in the focus group material and report, 'In Boise, one twelve-year-old said the frying pan ad made him and his friends think about not doing drugs,' when most kids said, 'God, that was cool, but what was it?' Kids really liked that ad, but they didn't understand what the point was." Overall, Bob notes, "the data were not running in the direction we wanted." Subsequently, the ONDCP rewrote sections of the report he worked on.
"The ONDCP -- I call it Vietnam," Bob says. "Everybody is a disinformation expert, trying to spin information. It's not an original thought, but I do know that if a goal is not in the right direction, none of the objectives used to reach that goal will make sense. The goal -- to stop all drug use -- is not achievable. But the ONDCP cannot sell the notion that drugs and drug users are on a continuum. Some drugs are worse than others. Some use is worst than others. For several years, we interviewed hundreds of kids. The whole idea of gateway drugs" -- that marijuana use inexorably leads to the harder stuff -- "is bogus to them. Take seventh- and eighth-graders. They hear how bad marijuana is, that it's a gateway drug to hell. Then if they smoke a little, they think it's fun, they giggle and want to go to store and buy lots of snack food. No big deal. They find out it's the opposite of what they've been told, and they think, 'Why should I believe you about anything?' There's a disconnect between parents and kids _and_ policymakers and kids. We can't admit that what we're really concerned about is heroin and cocaine. If we're looking for a connection with kids -- and even if we don't want to promote marijuana -- we would have to point out the truth: not all drugs are the same. Then maybe they would be ready to hear, say, about the biological negative effects of marijuana smoke."
The war is not being won, because there is no war to win. Walters, Bush, and the other anti-drug crusaders are too deep into conventional and faulty assumptions. At the White House ceremony announcing Walters' nomination, Bush did note that his Administration was going to add a little more money to the drug treatment pot. But he is not changing the overall thrust of the federal drug policy. "Often, some of the best ideas look like outliers," Bob says, using a statistics term for data that are far from the statistical mean. But as Bob tells it, the drug warriors are prisoners of their own propaganda. There's no indication there will be any escapes soon. Bob is happy not to be working with ONDCP at the moment. "I like to be honest with data," he says. And there's not much room for honesty in this so-called war.