Trying to make the U.S. “war on drugs” appear to be successful has always required its proponents to perform some serious massaging of the numbers.
Statistics about drug production, supply and demand consistently bring bad news – or at least reasons for strong concern. Yet U.S. officials insist on parsing the results, looking for the silver lining in the big gray stormclouds: pieces of data that can at least give the impression that some progress is being made, when it clearly is not.
The latest example comes from two recent press releases from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the office of the “drug czar”), in which some very troubling data undergoes some very serious shiatsu.
In the first, the ONDCP makes an announcement that used to occur in June or July: the amount of coca estimated to have been under cultivation in Colombia during the previous year. The press release finds that coca-growing in Colombia increased in 2007, to 167,000 hectares (from 157,200 in 2006; a hectare is about 2 1/2 acres). That is just 2,800 hectares shy of the most coca ever detected in a single country (169,800 hectares in Colombia in 2001).
This increase in coca-growing is higher than the UN estimate of 99,000 hectares, announced in June. But both entities, the U.S. government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, found an increase – or in the best of cases, a failure to decrease – last year.
You would have to read the ONDCP press release carefully to detect this troubling data, however, because its headline is all sunny good news. Through a calculation whose methodology is not revealed, the release determines that this higher amount of coca yielded significantly less cocaine. The current estimate is 535 tons of cocaine produced last year, far less than the UN estimate of 600.
How the tonnage estimate is derived is a mystery, especially since the ONDCP release takes pains to emphasize how fuzzy its land-area estimates are (”The actual survey area changes from year to year and cannot be directly compared.”)
It is quite possible, though, that cocaine production is reduced despite the greater land area under cultivation. The UN, which found a 25% increase in coca-growing last year, also estimated a decrease in cocaine derived from that coca (from 610 tons in 2006 to 600 last year).
The reason appears to be that, in response to eradication, growers are replanting so much and so frequently that their coca fields are newer and thus lower-yielding. Much credit goes to manual eradication, which destroys plants completely and forces growers to start over.
The problem is, there are more of those coca fields than ever before. Recall that the coca cultivation estimate reflects what the U.S. government believes to be left over after all eradication takes place. To find out how much coca Colombian growers tried to cultivate, then, one must add the coca estimate to the eradication statistic. Looking at attempted coca growing yields a very disturbing picture:
The U.S. coca statistics tell us that not only was there more coca in Colombia in 2007 than at almost any time before, there was far, far more Colombian land planted with coca. Throughout the country, coca-growers – most of them impoverished rural-dwellers at the margins of the legal economy – planted almost exactly twice as much coca as they had in 2000, the year “Plan Colombia” began.
This is an environmental catastrophe, as virgin rainforests are felled and chemical fertilizers introduced at escalating rates. It also shows the perverse results of a set of incentives created by massive forced eradication combined with insufficient development aid and food security. When Plan Colombia began, officials initially thought that this punitive mix of strategies would discourage poor Colombians from trying to grow coca. It most emphatically has not.
The new data show how far this problem is from resolution. The fields may have yielded less last year, but Colombian campesinos continue to respond to forced eradication by planting even more of the crop – and they are likely to catch up again. As long as drug policy fails to address the poverty and statelessness of vast areas in rural Colombia, we can expect this result to continue. There is nothing to celebrate here.
The second press release claims that progress is also being made at home. It cites an annual survey indicating that “cocaine use among 18-25 year-olds dropped 23 percent (to 1.7 percent [of all those surveyed])” from 2006 to 2007.
This is great news. But a look at the actual survey data should convince us to put away the champagne bottles.
When other age groups are added to the survey data mix, it turns out that the amount of the U.S. population admitting to having used cocaine in the past year was 2.3% in 2007, down from 2.5% in 2006. This is not a significant decline – it is more of a normal fluctuation in a usage rate that this survey has shown to be in the 2-3 percent range since the early 1990s. The survey also indicates that the percentage of Americans admitting to having used crack cocaine did not change between 2006 and 2007: it stayed the same at 0.6%.
The same report in fact shows a dramatic increase in cocaine use among baby boomers: the number of those aged 45-59 who admitted using cocaine in past year increased by 68 percent.
The survey data indicates that cocaine may just be going in and out of style, or simply preferred by addicts of a particular age group. Again, this leaves nothing to celebrate.
We need to believe that our government is making policies based on honest assessments of the data and unflinching analysis of their results. Policies based on distortions or cherry-picking will fail, because such behavior reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges the policy faces. By insisting on celebrating dubious achievements illustrated by heavily massaged numbers, the U.S. government casts doubt on the whole enterprise.