07/03/2006 12:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who's Smoking What? Drug Czars, UN Proclaim Victory in Drug War

There's a curious new trend amongst drug warriors these days-- declaring victory!

For example, recently released 2006 U.N. World Drug Report includes this bizarre claim:

"In the long-term, the drug problem has been contained... there is evidence that, over the last hundred years, [international drug control policy] has reduced and contained the drug problem at the global level."

See here for how this "achievement" actually consisted largely of China executing opium users and dealers during the 20th century and how it fails to mention the more-than-sextupling of world opium production since 1980.

And last month, seven former U.S. drug czars met at the University of Maryland on the 35th anniversary of President Nixon's declaration of "war on drugs." According to the Columbus Dispatch, they concluded that "The United States has won the war against illegal drugs."

Apparently, they drew this conclusion because polls no longer find drugs to be one of the most important problems in the country and because returning Viet Nam vets, contrary to expectations, did not overwhelmingly bring their heroin habits home.

Now, could it be that drugs no longer poll as America's "number one or two" problem because people are worried about little things like terrorism and the economy? (And while it is true that vets were far less likely to stay addicted to heroin than originally expected, the vast majority quit without treatment and stayed away from heroin even after using it once or twice in the U.S., suggesting that this victory had nothing to do with the war on drugs).

Anyway, our ex-czars certainly couldn't have come to their sunny conclusion based on the data. For example, 1975 is the first year for which there is large survey data on teen drug use. In 1975, 55% of high school seniors report having taken an illegal drug. The most recent number? 50% Nixon spent $16 million per year on his drug war; Bush now spends more than $18 billion and this is victory? Our prison population has more than doubled, a majority of teens still try drugs before they finish high school and a 5% drop in use is a victory?

Well, perhaps there are declines in the most harmful types of drug use? Let's look at daily use of marijuana by high school seniors: 6% reported daily use in 1975; in 2005, 5% do so-- perhaps some progress, but as recently as '04 it was 5.6%. How about recent heroin use? .4% in 1975; .5% in the most recent numbers. Cocaine use within the last month? 1.9% in '75; 2.3% now. Curiously, good old amphetamine-- the scare drug of the moment-- has shown some progress. In 1975, 8.5% of high school seniors reported using it in the last month; in 2005, that dropped to 3.9%.

And admittedly, all of these are down from peaks in 1979-80. However, if you're going to declare victory, shouldn't drug trends show some relationship to your efforts? Drug war spending has increased every single year-- but drug use trends have waxed and waned with little connection to this.

If drug warriors want to declare victory and go home, however, I'm all for it. But claim that you've won and maintain the same policy that spends billions and locks up millions and has virtually no effect on either drug use rates, drug-related harm or addiction rates? What have you been smoking?