The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White House is spending billions to combat drugs. But drug use keeps rising.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is trying to reduce drug use by 15 percent by 2015. But over the past decade, despite significant increases in drug war spending, drug use rates have continued to rise.

The White House officially nominated Michael Botticelli on Thursday to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the office charged with overseeing and administering federal drug policy. The White House has been moving toward dealing with drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice one. The nomination of Botticelli, himself a recovering alcoholic, might be the most significant concrete sign of that shift to date.

The ONDCP's budget offers a different perspective on the office's priorities, and there the picture is a little more mixed. Since 2003, the ONDCP budget has grown from roughly $17 billion to $25 billion annually. This represents a growth of about 48 percent, which is less than the 69 percent increase in total federal spending over the same period.

ONDCP breaks its spending down into two broad categories: "demand reduction," which encompasses prevention and treatment programs; and "supply reduction", which includes law enforcement efforts, anti-smuggling operations, and international operations. When people talk about a shift from a criminal justice to a public health focus, they're talking about a shift from supply reduction to demand reduction.

The budget numbers show that there hasn't been much change on that front in the past 10 years. In 2003, treatment and prevention activities accounted for 42 percent of the ONDCP's budget. In 2014, they made up 40 percent of it.

In raw dollar terms, spending on drug treatment has nearly doubled over the same period - a welcome development. Spending on prevention activities - such as the infamous anti-drug public service announcements of your childhood - has actually declined.

On the criminal justice side, spending on domestic law enforcement activities has risen from $6.7 billion to $9.3 billion. A big chunk of that - $3.5 billion - goes to the federal prison system for incarcerating drug offenders. In 2013, these funds accounted for fully half of the Bureau of Prisons' budget.

So on the one hand, yes - it's true that more federal dollars are going toward drug treatment. On the other hand, treatment and prevention account for less than half of federal drug spending, most of which still goes toward law enforcement efforts.

This is vexing to drug policy reform advocates like Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority, who says that ONDCP's "actual drug control spending continues to emphasize failed policies of arrests, punishment and interdiction over effective strategies like treatment and prevention. It's time for ONDCP to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk."

But Kevin Sabet of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana project says that it's easy to read too much into ONDCP's budget numbers. He says that ONDCP is just one voice among many when it comes to allocating these funds, and that Congress and the various federal agencies represented in the ONDCP's budget also play a big role in deciding how these monies get spent.

"Much more important than looking at the numbers is looking at the strategy," Sabet said in an interview. "It's about looking at what the director [of the ONDCP] is doing and saying on a day to day basis. It’s the power of guiding agencies and policy from a rhetorical point of view. That is much more representative of the focus of the office." Sabet says that with the full nomination of Botticelli to the directorship, "you're going to hear that emphasis on public health even more."

Regardless of how the ONDCP conceives of its duties, it faces a daunting task. The overall goal of the office is to achieve a 15 percent reduction in the rate of drug use from 2010 to 2015. Between 2003 and 2012, ONDCP spending increased by 41 percent. But the rate of illicit drug use  rose a full percentage point over that same period, from 8.2 percent of the population in 2003 to 9.2 percent in 2012.