Evidence of failed drug war mounts

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director of The November Coalition


The House Subcommittee on Crime held the first Congressional oversight hearing on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in a decade. At this hearing, on July 29, the General Accounting Office released the results of their audit which was a comprehensive review of the DEA.

GAO determined that the DEA's strategic goals, objectives and enhanced programs and initiatives in the 1990's were consistent with the Office of National Drug Control Strategy, but that the DEA had not developed measurable performance targets for its programs.
In other words, the DEA was attempting to enforce the nation's drug laws, but how well it was doing its job was not able to be determined.

Eric E. Sterling, President of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime from 1981 to 1989 responsible for DEA oversight, among other issues, said in a prepared statement to the House Subcommittee, "DEA is not being held accountable. Since the House and Senate Judiciary Committees (the congressional committees with oversight responsibility) haven't held DEA oversight hearings in a decade, the DEA's non-performance has been ignored, even though its budget increased by 82.5% between 1990 and 1999."

The report showed federal funding had increased dramatically in the 1990's, but "demand for and supply of illegal drugs have persisted at very high levels." The report also admitted that the consumption of illegal drugs in the United States has remained stable since 1990.
In other words, DEA funding had nearly doubled in the 90's even though illegal drug use had not. Not even a slight measurable result could be made.

The DEA is now required to report not simply the number of arrests, but the result of those arrests. However, GAO warned that drug arrest data meant nothing by and of itself. Requiring arrest data with pertinent information could result in arrests for arrest's sake and good investigative police work would be compromised.

"DEA claims to be fighting the highest level traffickers, but the evidence of Federal drug enforcement efforts are seen in who goes to prison, overwhelmingly low-level offenders," said Sterling. "Last year, two-thirds of Federal drug prisoners didn't meet the very low quantity thresholds required to be sentenced to a ten-year mandatory minimum. Only 41 defendants, out of over 20,266 prosecuted for drug offenses, were sentenced under the Federal drug kingpin statute. More than ten times that number were sentenced for simple possession ­ that's the population of the entire Federal prison system, with an annual cost of more than $80,000,000."

The DEA agreed with GAO's principle finding that it had not included measurable performance targets for disrupting or dismantling drug trafficking organizations in its fiscal years 1999 and 2000 performance plans. The GAO report continued, "However, [DEA] disagreed with our draft conclusion that 'In the absence of such targets, little can be said about DEA's effectiveness in achieving its strategic goals."

You can order a free copy of this report by contacting:

US General Accounting Office
PO Box 37050
Washington, DC 20013
Phone: (202) 512-6000
sk for: GAO/GGD 99-108 DEA Operations in the 1990s