Wasting Drug War Resources

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden, has come to an unsurprising conclusion: After more than $6 billion spent, the controversial drug control operation known as Plan Colombia has failed by large margins to meet its targets.

The goal had been to cut cocaine production in Colombia by 50 percent from 2000 to 2006 through eradication of coca crops and training of anti-narcotics police and military personnel. In fact, cocaine production in Colombia rose 4 percent during that period, the GAO found. With increases in Peru and Bolivia, production of cocaine in South America increased by 12 percent during that period. In 1999 it cost $142 to buy a gram of cocaine on the street in the United States, according to inflation-adjusted figures from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. By 2006 the price had fallen to $94 per gram.

President-elect Barack Obama won his historic victory by promising pragmatic, results-oriented solutions aimed at the common good. The recent report demonstrates that Plan Colombia does not fit those criteria.

The primary lesson for the new administration to take from Plan Colombia's failures is something that many economists have been saying for years: Efforts to decrease the supply of drugs in America without major efforts to curb demand for them will only increase the profits of drug dealers and the associated crime rates.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy, under which Plan Colombia and other drug control programs operate, spends 65 percent of its $12 billion annual budget on supply-side efforts and only 35 percent on the demand side. In 1971, when the Nixon administration initiated the war against drugs, the pragmatic goal was to have the exact opposite: two-thirds of funding for treatment and prevention and one-third for law enforcement, crop reduction and drug interdiction.

During the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, however, strict laws were put in place aimed at reducing the availability of drugs on the streets. These have served to give the United States the highest incarceration rates in the world, with over one in 100 Americans in jail or prison. Mass incarceration has broken up families and communities, at a huge economic cost. In general, it costs about $34,000 to lock someone up for a year and only $3,300 to provide year-long substance abuse treatment.

There are no magic bullets for the socially and medically complex problem of substance abuse. Still, several demand-side strategies have proven effective at achieving the key goals of the drug war: reduced consumption of drugs, improved health outcomes among substance users and a decrease in drug-associated criminal activity.

Of the first 100,000 drug users benefiting from President Bush's primary demand-side initiative -- the $300 million Access to Recovery program -- 71 percent successfully completed therapy and abstained from illicit drugs, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Of those with criminal histories, 85 percent remained out of the criminal justice system. Other research has shown that drug treatment programs can reduce drug use by over 70 percent and criminal activity by 50 percent.

There is a simple strategy that Obama and his congressional colleagues could take that would save about $6 billion a year: Cut supply-side spending by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and require that two-thirds of its funding be spent on demand-side programs. While that is simple, it won't be easy. Fighting against these basic, common-sense changes are entrenched special interests, including defense and prison contractors and prison guards unions.

A broad coalition of Democrats and Republicans got us into the drug-war morass. It will require a pragmatic, results-oriented administration to get us out. Plan Colombia and much of the supply-side programs in the war on drugs should be drastically scaled back.

Duncan Smith-Rohrberg Maru, an epidemiologist in the MD/PhD program at the Yale School of Medicine and directs the medical relief organization Nyaya Health. His research is aimed at improving health outcomes among drug users.