At this blog, we have repeatedly pointed out the most fundamental difference between private and government endeavors: In private endeavors, when you fail, you lose your ability to get more investors and keep going, and you go out of business. In government endeavors, when you fail, you proclaim that you just need more money to accomplish the mission. Somehow, the citizens, through their legislators, always fall for it. So you get more money, and you grow your staff and your budget. In fact, the best way to assure the growth of your organization is to fail, and you can grow even more if your failure is even worse. As a result, no government bureaucracy ever fixes the problem that it was created to fix; indeed, all the problems at which the government throws money always and inevitably grow worse over time. Extreme examples of this phenomenon covered at this blog have included the poverty scam and the food insecurity scam.
For today, let's consider the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs was officially launched in about 1970, during the first term of President Nixon. In the intervening 46 years, as far as I can see, no progress of any kind has been made (unless you count well over a million people behind bars at any given time as "progress"). Sure, usage of some specific drugs has waned marginally (cocaine is an example), but only because other drugs have emerged and become suddenly popular. A few years ago there was a surge in usage of crystal meth. Today the surge is in opioid pain killers. For marijuana, the authorities basically seem to have given up after decades of jailing millions of people. Overall? From the government's drugabuse.gov website:
Illicit drug use in the United States has been increasing. In 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older—9.4 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug in the past month. This number is up from 8.3 percent in 2002.
And what are we spending to achieve these stellar results? Drugpolicy.org has a collection of statistics here. They put annual spending (all levels of government) at about $51 billion. Most goes to law enforcement, but large chunks also go to things like prevention and treatment. For a post a few days ago I found a figure of over $12 billion annually for just the federal piece of prevention and treatment. And the costs are not just direct expenditures. The drugpolicy.org compilation has other statistics that include: 1.6 million annual arrests for drug law violations and $46 billion of government revenue foregone (from potential legalization).
Yet, with this enormous ongoing effort, suddenly in the last couple of years an unexpected epidemic of abuse of opioid painkillers has exploded upon the scene. Here is a "facts and figures" sheet from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. According to that document, use of prescription opioid painkillers surged by a factor of four between 1999 and 2008, after which use of heroin began a 37% per year surge from 2010 to 2013. The two are related because, once addicted to the painkillers, users report that they switch to heroin because the prescription opioids are "more expensive and harder to obtain." Overdose deaths from opioids (both the painkillers and heroin) reached 47,055 in 2014.
Of course, even as this was happening, the very drugs whose use was surging were primary and specific targets of the Drug War. The painkillers have long been subject to very tight restrictions on doctors in their ability to prescribe. Heroin has been absolutely illegal since the onset of the War. We are paying $51 billion per year to employ thousands upon thousands of government functionaries specifically to keep the buying and usage of these substances under control, and instead the buying and usage of some of the very most dangerous drugs has surged on their watch. They have had an epic, total and undeniable failure -- a disaster.
And of course you know the response of the government Blob to this epic disaster. This is the most fabulous opportunity in a generation for us to hit the suckers up for more money to grow our staffs and our budgets! We can just say that we need lots more money to address this epidemic! And with thousands of families grieving over the loss of their promising teenagers and twenty-somethings to this epidemic, who will be uncouth enough to point out that we already were blowing $51 billion per year without even being able to see this epidemic coming?
As always, Congress has just rolled over and paid up. We now have the brand new "Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016," signed into law by President Obama on July 22. It's the usual: lots more money for lots more programs, without the slightest bit of accountability for prior failures. There's a new "task force on pain management," new "awareness campaigns," new "community-based enhancement grants to address local drug crises," new "information materials," new "military emergency medical training to assist veterans," a new "FDA opioid action plan," new "improving access to overdose treatment," new "NIH opioid research," etc., etc. etc., etc. In layman's terms, they're throwing another approximately $700 million per year at the problem and hoping that this time it will accomplish something. (It won't.)
And in this process, did anyone so much as take a look at the $51 billion currently being spent on total failure to see if any part of that ought to be cut out as useless waste? Of course not. That's just not how this process works. A couple of days ago the Federalist Society sponsored a panel on this new law, to which I listened in, and at the conclusion I asked that question: if the prior spending had not been effective to prevent this problem from arising, what part of that prior spending (all of it?) should be eliminated as wasteful? It was as if nobody had ever thought of the question. Accountability for prior failure is just not part of the dynamic here. Failure is how you grow your budget! Everybody knows that!