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Obama's First Drug Budget Fails to Shift Priorities

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The chairman of a House oversight committee last week chided the Obama administration for failing to live up to its rhetoric about ending the war on drugs and taking a new approach to preventing drug use, challenging the composition of President Obama's first drug budget during new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske's first appearance as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

“Despite promising statements by the new administration and Director Kerlikowske, the FY 2010 Budget does not reflect a changed approach to fighting drug abuse,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), chair of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “While there is an increased emphasis on treatment programs, the spending allocated to supply-side initiatives still vastly outweighs the demand-side programs.”

Drug czars of the recent past — up to and including the Bush administration's John Walters — have talked a good game about the need for addiction treatment and prevention, then unfailingly presented budgets that skewed heavily towards supply-reduction efforts like international interdiction and crop eradication.

Big changes have been expected of the Obama administration, which named former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to lead ONDCP and recently released its FY2010 drug budget (PDF).

During a May 19 hearing on antidrug funding and priorities before the subcommittee, Kerlikowske echoed the words of his predecessors, saying, “It is only through a balanced approach — combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts — that we will be successful in stemming both the demand and supply of illegal drugs in our country.”

“Measurable and sustained progress against drug abuse can be made only when the efforts of local communities, state agencies, and the Federal government are coordinated and complementary,” continued Kerlikowske. “If we are to succeed, the natural silos between the prevention, treatment, and law enforcement communities must be broken down — and the greatest use must be made of the finite resources at our disposal.”

However, the FY2010 drug budget, released earlier this month, is actually more unbalanced in favor of supply reduction than the Bush administration's final antidrug plan.

Obama would devote 34.4 percent of federal drug-control spending to demand reduction and 65.6 percent to supply reduction activities in fiscal 2010 — nearly a 2-1 ratio in favor of supply reduction. That represents a decrease in proportional treatment and prevention spending compared to what Congress actually enacted last year (35.1 percent demand/64.9 percent supply), as well as compared to the final national drug-control budget submitted by Bush, who proposed spending 34.8 percent on demand reduction and 65.2 percent on supply reduction.

“It's early, but there are signs of a gulf between the new administration's campaign promises on drug-policy reform and its policy initiatives,” said Norm Stamper, Kerlikowske's predecessor as chief of police in Seattle and a spokesperson for the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “President Obama is poised to invest more in enforcement, and less in prevention and treatment than his predecessor. How does that jibe with ONDCP's ostensible campaign to shift the emphasis from a criminal-justice to a public-health approach? It's hard to imagine ending even the rhetoric of the 'drug war' while prosecuting it with greater vigor than we saw during the Bush years.”

The Obama budget also would cut actual spending on demand reduction by $39.6 million while increasing supply-reduction spending by $263.9 million. The cut in demand-reduction spending includes a decrease of 10.6 percent ($189.8 million) in prevention funding, largely a result of the proposed elimination of the $294.8-million state grants portion of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program.

John Carnevale, a former ONDCP budget analyst, told members of the House subcommittee that the Bush administration failed to meet its only stated drug-policy goal — reducing drug use — by similarly emphasizing supply reduction over demand reduction in its antidrug policy.

“ONDCP managed to implement a federal drug-control budget that was completely at odds with its one strategic goal of reducing drug use,” said Carnevale, who added, “In budget terms, and considering the lessons offered by research, one would expect marginal changes in the drug budget emphasizing treatment, prevention, and law enforcement over source-country programs and interdiction, yet the federal drug budget does not currently heed the evidence-based course of action.”

Carnevale expressed concern about Obama's plan to cut prevention funding, saying, “The requested (4.4 percent) increase for substance abuse treatment is too small to make much of a difference in reducing the demand for drugs.”

“I hope our new drug czar — who arrived too late to influence the FY 2010 budget request — will make the expansion of resources for treatment and prevention much more of a priority in the out years to ensure the strategy's future success in reducing drug use and its consequences,” he told lawmakers (read Carnevale's written statement, PDF).

Kerlikowske told House lawmakers that ONDCP would improve both public and interagency outreach in developing policy and the drug budget, set outcome targets for antidrug spending, and establish a comprehensive interagency performance-management system.

“We will set aggressive policy goals to reduce youth and adult drug use, limit drug availability in the nation, and mitigate the difficult and costly consequences associated with drug use,” he said.

However, Kerlikowske said that the administration needed time to evaluate the current strategy. “It is my philosophy that this administration cannot develop a comprehensive strategy until these processes yield meaningful data for analysis,” he said, promising, “In nine months, we will deliver a National Drug Control Strategy and Budget that focuses on the nature and scope of the problems as well as the policies and programs that will have the most meaningful impact.”

Robert B. Charles, former assistant secretary of state at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, objected to characterizations of recent U.S. antinarcotics efforts as a failure but agreed that, “America needs to focus on both sides of the drug-abuse and drug-crime phenomenon — adequately and sustainably supporting both the health and law-enforcement sides of our personal, family, community, state and federal anti-drug effort.”

“To minimize the role of either law enforcement — often dubbed the supply side, since the aim is to deter drug production and trafficking — or the health-related requirements including prevention and treatment costs, the so-called demand side — would in my view by a sudden turn for the worse,” cautioned Charles. “… We must stop creating straw men for the satisfaction of speaking a different truth, and recognize that both sides are telling the truth — drug abuse and drug-related violence are one enemy.”

During the House hearing, the new drug czar also embraced a recommendation (PDF) from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to develop a multiyear drug strategy and budget. ONDCP also should develop broader goals than reducing drug use, including cutting drug availability and reducing drug-related crime, health costs, and other consequences, said Carnevale.

Both Carnevale and Kerlikowske said that — contrary to a NAPA recommendation — ONDCP should retain its performance-evaluation role but discard its past practice of evaluating only individual programs and focus on measuring outcomes against the drug strategy's stated goals and objectives.

“While [the current] system provides an assessment of individual program performance, it does not provide an assessment of interagency progress towards the strategy's policy goals,” said Kerlikowske, who also argued that ONDCP needs to retain the power to certify the budgets of other federal agencies involved in anti-drug activities. “Without ONDCP's budget authorities, my ability to influence the outcome of critical resourcing decisions affecting the President's National Drug Control Strategy could be limited,” he warned.

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