No insight, no healing: drug enforcement confronts the “so what?” question

The first step in training a mule, it is said, is to hit the animal squarely across the head with a two-by-four, in order to get his undivided attention. Then you can start the actual training. That’s what the Office of Management and Budget just did to the Drug Enforcement Administration. It released a brutal management review and gave the agency only a token budget increase in a year when enforcement budgets are jumping.

The bad news is that the mule barely blinked.

Here’s how the New York Times described it:

In an unusually harsh critique of an agency with a strong global reputation, the White House has questioned the ability of the Drug Enforcement Administration to stem the flow of narcotics and is threatening to give the agency its smallest budget increase in 15 years.

The agency “is unable to demonstrate progress in reducing the availability of illegal drugs in the United States,” the Office of Management and Budget wrote…

Officials at the agency and its parent, the Justice Department, said the agency was working to address many of the concerns in the report. They said the report was more a reflection of the agency’s failure to communicate its successes than its ability to fight drug trafficking.

“It’s not that we’re doing things wrong or we’ve been ineffective,” a spokesman, Will Glaspy, said. “It’s more that we just need to do a better job of defining our accomplishments.”

Officials at the agency pointed to a growing number of seizures for some types of drugs along with the reduced purity of street drugs as evidence of their success in squeezing suppliers out of business.

As the psychiatrists say, “No insight, no healing.” If DEA doesn’t understand that it has a real problem rather than a PR problem, things aren’t going to get any better. DEA’s problem is not that people don’t understand its accomplishments, or that its accomplishments aren’t real. DEA’s problem is that it can’t show that what it accomplishes serves the public purpose it’s intended to serve.

DEA is highly effective at seizing drugs, catching drug dealers, and putting together cases that result — given the current sentencing laws — in long prison terms. Compared to the FBI drug unit (now being reassigned to the anti-terror campaign) DEA has always been much more productive in terms of cases per agent-year.

But putting bad guys away, no matter how satisfying it may be, isn’t the reason we have the drug laws in the first place. The drug laws are supposed to reduce the extent of drug abuse by making drugs harder to get and more expensive. Public enthusiasm for spending money on drug enforcement is based on the idea that busting dealers helps control drug abuse. That’s what hasn’t been happening.

Over the past twenty years, the DEA budget has about tripled in inflation-adjusted terms, while the prices of heroin and cocaine, adjusting for purity and inflation, are down about 80%. Once upon a time, DEA would have called that a mark of failure. The agency used to define its mission as making drugs expensive and hard to come by, labeling its annual calculation of the purity-adjusted price of heroin the “Performance Measurement System.”

However, as drug prices started to drop in the face of increased spending, the DEA brass knew exactly what to do: they redefined their mission in terms of catching bad guys, and simply hoped that everyone would assume that nabbing dealers was the same as protecting kids from drugs. (The FBI has never allowed itself to get in a position where it was held responsible for reducing the incidence of the crimes it was charged with investigating.)

The OMB report is a surprise only in the sense that it’s surprising that the White House had the nerve to challenge the lead agency in the drug war; its findings have been utterly obvious for years to anyone in the field. The DEA response is likewise unsurprising, but nonetheless depressing. If the agency thinks that its problem is that it hasn’t communicated effectively about its capacity to lock people up, rather than understanding that its problem is a failure to develop strategies that will make the enforcement effort effective in helping control the drug problem, then it will focus its efforts on PR rather than figuring out what to do.

Years ago, Peter Reuter and I wrote a paper called “Risks and Prices,” which laid out a straightforward microeconomic theory of the drug markets. Increased enforcement, by increasing the costs and risks faced by drug dealers, was supposed to lead to higher prices. But the phenomena have refused to cooperate with the theory; drug enforcement has grown dramatically, not only at the federal level but even more at the state and local level, without being able to even hold prices steady. It appears that dealers are so replaceable, especially since those coming out of prison lack attractive alternatives to going back to the drug trade, that enforcement aimed at mass drug markets has only limited power to increase prices. (“Limited” isn’t zero; it’s still a good bet that if enforcement hadn’t grown at all, drugs would be even cheaper than they are. But chopping the DEA budget by 25% from its current level probably wouldn’t measurably decrease heroin or cocaine prices.)

Right now, there’s no reason to think that some different set of enforcement strategies would succeed where current efforts have failed. We may be running into fundamental limitations on the capacity of enforcement to move illicit markets, or at least illicit markets above a certain size.

But drug prices and availability aren’t the only consequences of enforcement strategies. Enforcement creates the context for drug dealing and shapes the strategies of drug dealers. Right now, dealers find it advantageous to use violence, create flagrant retail markets, and employ juveniles as apprentices. Those things do damage above and beyond merely delivering drugs to drug users. Perhaps, if we’ve hit the limit on our ability to influence drug prices, we ought to think about redirecting drug law enforcement — not just the DEA, but the rest of the federal effort and the much larger state-and-local effort — toward creating incentives to minimize violence, public disorder, and the use of juveniles.

Don’t target the biggest dealer in town: target the one with a reputation for settling disputes with gunfire. Break up the flagrant open markets and drug houses that foster violence and disrupt neighborhoods, while slacking off on the dealers who, for example, deliver to the customer’s door in response to a phone call. If drug enforcement can’t add much more than it now does to controlling the drug problem, maybe we should have it work on violence and the other side-effects of drug dealing instead.

But none of this can happen unless the DEA figures out — and the state and local drug enforcement units figure out — that the problem is one that a new press officer can’t solve.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: