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April 28, 2006 - Reuters News (US)

Senators Ask US Drug Czar To Explain Rosy Reports

By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. drug czar has been challenged to explain disputed statistics underlying a string of rosy reports on progress in cutting the flow of cocaine from South America, one of which prompted an expert to liken the official numbers to "lipstick on a pig."

The request came in a detailed 1,800-word letter to John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), from Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

The Iowa senator expressed concern that the ONDCP has been picking data "to provide a rosier but not necessarily more accurate picture" on the multi-billion dollar effort to eradicate coca plantations in Colombia, the world's top producer of cocaine, Bolivia and Peru.

The letter took particular issue with the drug czar's assertion, first made last November, that the anti-drug fight had led to an increase in the price and a decrease in the purity of cocaine on American streets, and an April 14 report on a long-running program to eradicate Colombian coca fields by spraying them with herbicides.

That report said there had been an eight-percent reduction in equal areas surveyed by satellite last year and in 2004. Overall, however, the report said coca cultivation showed an increase of 26 percent after the satellite imaging area was widened.

Critics of Washington's counter-cocaine policies have long insisted that the area under coca cultivation in Colombia had been seriously underestimated. The report on an eight percent reduction drew sharp criticism from experts who say the numbers are skewed and eradication is ineffective.

"This is like putting lipstick on a pig," said Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America. "Anyway you dress it, it is bad policy."

The letter questioned the ONDCP's statistics and methodology and said Walters' reports had raised "serious concerns within Congress about our ability to effectively combat narco-traffickers."

Aerial spraying of Colombian coca fields is a key plank in an anti-narcotics program on which Washington has so far spent more than $4 billion. Overall, the U.S. has spent around $7 billion on counter-drug campaigns in South America.

Cocaine Users

In the April 14 report being questioned by the Senate narcotics caucus, the ONDCP estimated the area under coca cultivation in Colombia at 144,000 hectares. That was more than the 136,000 hectares detected by U.S. satellites in 2000, the year Washington committed to the first $1.3 billion for Plan Colombia meant to throttle the lucrative traffic in cocaine.

Neither aerial spraying nor stepped-up efforts to intercept cocaine shipped to the U.S. by land or sea have made a dent on the drug's easy availability in the U.S.. And apart from temporary spikes, its price has declined steadily since 1979, according to several studies of the illicit market.

Critics of eradication programs say they are ineffective because of what is known as the "balloon effect"-just as squeezing a balloon in one place makes it bulge in another, wiping out an illegal drug crop in one place makes it pop up elsewhere.

"How does ONDCP reconcile the apparent disparity in the information being reported about cultivation and cocaine price/purity with the trends in cocaine consumption as reported in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health?" the letter asked.

According to that survey, cocaine is so easily available that, on average, 2,700 Americans are trying it for the first time every day.

Survey data show that the number of first-time users has run at around one million a year from 2000 to 2004. Figures for 2005, due to be released later this year, are not expected to show a significant change.

Experts say that statistics on any illegal drug's first time use are important to track trends - and the trend shows no significant change.

The government's figures on the drug war have been questioned before but there have been no changes in policy.

Last November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, described as problematic the way the government measures success in its anti-drug fight. The GAO noted "an absence of adequate, reliable data."

The Senate caucus's letter requested a written reply to its questions by May 5. The drug czar's office was not available for comment on Friday.

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