Drug war very effective -- at bloating police, prison 'industries'

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted February 19, 2001

Back in 1990, federal officials had what seemed like a modest idea for a new program: The U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy would identify a few areas -- all in the worst inner cities or along the Mexican border -- where local authorities were having trouble keeping the flow of illicit drugs under control. Some $25 million -- chickenfeed by federal standards -- would be parceled out to these "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas" in hopes of helping beef up local drug law enforcement.

Guess what happened?

Seeing a new source of funds for local police equipment, staff and operations, "Every congressman has raised their hand and said, 'I need relief from this problem, too,' " explains UCLA public policy professor Mark A.R. Kleiman.

If Sioux Falls, S.D. and Dayton, Ohio haven't yet been named "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas" ... just give them time.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently announced Las Vegas as one of the latest cities to win the coveted "HIDTA" designation, which could mean $800,000 in new federal moneys in the first year alone, supposedly to "coordinate local narcotics investigations."

However, both the volume of drugs moving through this area -- and their purity -- have actually increased in recent years, despite the existence of five previously established drug task forces.

What kind of results can officials show for those operations? Just this week, Las Vegas police and federal officials both refused to so much as disclose the names of the five pre-existing task forces -- let alone what they've cost or whether they can demonstrate any palpable success.

Insisting on keeping secret any evidence of their effectiveness -- or, who knows, the complete waste of every dollar allocated to them on bachelor parties and sports cars -- FBI Special Agent Daren Borst cited unspecified "operational concerns."

Coming to your town soon?
Coming to your town soon?

This does not instill a lot of confidence in the arrival here of a federal program which is quickly becoming known around the nation as the "SWAT Team Full-Employment Act."

HIDTA funding has expanded from $25 million in 1990 to $140 million in 1997 to a projected $205 million in 2001.

But Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C., says that growth has been largely attributable to the desire of local congressmen around the nation to elbow a place for their constituents at this latest federal feeding trough -- not on any evidence that HIDTA does any good.

A HIDTA designation for anti-narcotics efforts in a town like Las Vegas amounts to little more than "a new set of lights and whistles you put on the old vehicle to make it look fancier," Sterling told Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Glenn Puit last week.

With a decade of experience under their belts and 26 HIDT areas now designated across the nation, one would think the federal government would by now have gathered some evidence of the program's usefulness. But Professor Kleiman at UCLA says no independent, in-depth study of the effectiveness of the HIDTA designation -- and the federal funds that flow in its wake -- has ever been conducted.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Drug Control Policy responds that HIDTA's executive board is still "customizing performance measurement tools" for the added funds justified by the Trafficking Area designations. That is to say: Not only do they not know whether the $1.2 billion spent so far has done any good ... they haven't even figured out how to measure whether it's done any good.

It's tempting to say the War on Drugs isn't working. In fact, it's working very well as a justification for allocating billions of additional tax dollars for police equipment and staffing and tracking systems -- in what would otherwise be a shrinking industry, as the aging of the American population has caused the rate of virtually every non-drug crime to actually plummet in recent years.

Oh, the "War on Drugs" is working very well if your goal is to track where even law-abiding Americans go and who they call on the telephone and what they do with their money. It's only "not working" if we naively suppose the purpose is to stop people from voluntarily ingesting drugs -- which was actually given up as a lost cause in this country when they legalized "demon rum" in 1933.

At this point, it may even be legitimate to ask whether the folks rolling in the clover in the law enforcement and criminal defense and prison industries really want to see drug use reduced in this country. Imagine the kind of unemployment that would then ravage those "growth" industries if that were ever to happen.

Why, the drug warriors might even have to figure out some new "demon" to pursue -- just the way Harry Anslinger and a small group of other soon-to-be-unemployed Prohibition agents hit on a plan to launch a new "anti-marihuana" campaign just as that earlier "War on Drugs" was shutting down, back in 1933 and '34.

Any government program which spends money secretly, and which is thus totally lacking in accountability to the taxpayers who fund it, is dangerous and unacceptable in a free country, even before we start talking about the kind of invasions of privacy and systematic trampling of the Bill of Rights which are now widely (albeit foolishly) accepted as "necessary if we want to win this War on Drugs."

If there is a way to convince people to stop frittering their lives away in drug use, it's likely to be through stronger communities and families and churches and temples -- all focuses of energy and money and public attention from which programs like HIDTA only divert us.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and editor of Financial Privacy Report (subscribe by calling Nelson at 952-895-8757.) His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.

Buy After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century at Amazon.com for only $15.16 in hardcover or $8.95 in paperback

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