Sunday, November 25, 2007

Washington Post weighs in on WOLA drug claims

Several weeks ago, a story from AP found found Justice Department and GAO findings contrasted with the claims by drug czar John Walters of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) that the "unprecedented" recent spike in cocaine prices was evidence that US drug policy was working.

Now, Michael Dobbs, who writes "The Fact Checker" blog at the Washington Post website, has weighed in, spurred on by WOLA's recent press release challenging Walters' triumphant rhetoric. While Dobbs ended up saying the verdict on the facts is pending (and asking readers to provide other views), he finds that there is great skepticism on both sides of the aisle in Congress over ONDCP's methodology.

Dobbs also publishes a graph from a RAND report commissioned by the ONDCP, which finds a long-term decline in cocaine prices:

Dobb comments:

The most striking point in this graph is the long-term downward trend in retail cocaine prices, despite all the efforts at interdiction undertaken by successive U.S. administrations. By eyeballing the chart, you can see that there were significant price spikes in 1982, 1990, 1994, and 2000, which are
comparable to the recent increase. Each spike was followed by another sharp decline, as producers responded to the higher prices. Compared to historical levels, cocaine prices are still very low, particularly if you factor in inflation.

The RAND data is not strictly comparable to the latest DEA data as it measures the retail slice of the market, rather than average purchase prices. (RAND data for other slices of the market show similar peaks and troughs.) But it certainly suggests that policy-makers should be more cautious in using terms
like "unprecedented."

... One of the principal authors of the RAND study, Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said he was troubled by the way the DEA and ONDCP (the drug czar's office) kept changing its statistical methodology. "I don't understand why they don't run the series the same way (as RAND), just to remove any doubts that the data is solid. It would be much more convincing if they did that."

The ONDCP has its own blog, Pushing Back: Making the Drug Problem Smaller, which a week ago offered a rebuttal of WOLA's critique. However, ONDCP was obviously looking for a more definitive pat on the back from Dobbs than what they received, when they wrote:

On a more optimistic note, WOLA apparently sent their press release claim to the Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who runs a "Fact Checker" feature for the paper. At Dobbs' request, we have provided the full data story correcting
the record about WOLA's claims, showing why their assertions are off the mark. We look forward to a fair accounting of the situation.

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