Pubdate: Tue, 07 Mar 2006
Source: Reuters (Wire)
Copyright: 2006 Reuters Limited
Contact: London, UK
Author: Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent


Washington  - Despite three decades of upbeat reports on battles won 
in the war on drugs, cocaine, heroin and marijuana are as easily 
available as ever and experts say the United States has yet to 
develop a strategy that works.

Just as in previous years, the government's progress reports for this 
year on drug control point to new records on cocaine seizures and on 
the eradication of coca plantations in Colombia, the world's top 
producer of cocaine.

The annual reports were issued by the White House Office of National 
Drug Control Policy, a 130-member group which sets anti-drug policy 
and is headed by "drug czar" John Walters, and by the State 
Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

By some estimates, the United States consumes more than 60 percent of 
the world's illicit drugs, far out of proportion with its 4.5 percent 
of the world's population. It is by far the biggest market for 
cocaine, a drug that yields staggering profits for traffickers.

In most major U.S. cities, cocaine sells on the street for under $100 
a gram with New York prices ranging from $20 to $60 a gram and Los 
Angeles around $80 a gram.

Despite the ready availability of cocaine, the White House's ONDCP 
reported: "Our ... overseas counterdrug efforts have slowly 
constricted the pipeline that brings cocaine to the United States."

Similar announcements have been issued regularly ever since Richard 
Nixon issued the official declaration of war on drugs in 1969. Four 
years later, Nixon said the United States had "turned the corner" on 
drug addiction and drug supplies.

When Washington's first drug czar, William Bennett, left his post, 
the White House said he had put the U.S. "on the road to victory" in 
the drug war. That was 16 years ago. Today, cocaine, heroin and 
marijuana are as widely available as they were then - at sharply lower prices.

"The price decline began in 1979 and the downward trend has been 
steady," said Mark Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis 
program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kleiman is one 
of about a dozen academic experts in the United States who have 
studied the drug trade for decades.

They viewed with skepticism an assertion in the drug czar's report 
that the street price of cocaine - the drug that most worries the 
government - had increased by 19 percent while purity had dropped by 
15 percent between February and September 2005. The drug policy 
office called it a "trend reversal."

There have been temporary price spikes before but the trend remained unchanged.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

In the drug war, the pattern has been one step forward, one step back 
- - one trafficking organization smashed, another one formed; one 
hectare of coca or opium poppy destroyed, another one planted; one 
dealer imprisoned, another taking his place.

Questioned on cocaine prices on the street, Drug Enforcement 
Administration offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Miami, 
Atlanta and New York told Reuters no significant fluctuations had 
been noticed last year.

The DEA headquarters in Washington distanced itself from the drug 
czar's price increase figures and responded in a written statement to 
questions on the apparent discrepancy.

"The DEA provided ONDCP with our System to Retrieve Information on 
Drug Evidence, an inventory system that monitors and catalogs drug 
evidence taken in by DEA Special Agents around the country," the 
statement said.

"We did not take part in the study on which they based their 
conclusions so therefore don't feel it appropriate to comment on 
ONDCP's conclusions."

Said John Walsh, a drug expert at the Washington Office on Latin 
America: "In the drug war, numbers are routinely used to justify 
policy. Healthy skepticism is on order."

Peter Reuter, a drug expert at the University of Maryland, said the 
numbers were inconsistent with long-term trends and open to doubt. 
And, John Carnevale, a former senior aide to four drug czars, said 
ONDCP was "cherry-picking" statistics.


Such skepticism echoed a November report by the Government 
Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, 
which described as "problematic" the data the government is using to 
assess progress in the anti-drug fight.

Apart from an "absence of adequate, reliable data on illicit drug 
prices and use," the GAO said, other figures were so broad as to be useless.

It cited the drug czar's 2004 estimate that Latin American 
traffickers were preparing to move between 325 and 675 tonnes of 
cocaine to the United States. "This wide range is not useful for 
assessing interdiction efforts," it said.

Most of the 1.6 million drug-related arrests each year are for 
possession of drugs rather than trafficking. These arrests and rigid 
mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses have helped to turn the 
U.S. prison population into the world's biggest, at around 2.2 million.

While the administration has publicly acknowledged the importance of 
treatment and prevention at home, most of the drug czar's budget has 
gone to interdiction and law enforcement.

That trend continued with the budget request for 2007 - around 35 
percent for demand reduction, 65 percent for crackdowns on supplies.

When she introduced the State Department's progress report in March, 
Anne Patterson, who heads the Bureau for International Narcotics and 
Law Enforcement Affairs, was asked to explain how ever-larger 
seizures and crop spraying programs squared with the fact that drugs 
were still readily available.

"If we weren't doing these programs," she said, "the situation would 
be very dramatically worse."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman