Date: March 29, 2001
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Associate
Kathi McMullin, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>

Data Sorely Lacking on Effectiveness of Nation's Drug-Enforcement Programs

WASHINGTON -- Although the federal government invests about $12 billion each year in drug-enforcement programs, scant data exist to determine their effectiveness. Federal spending on such research amounts to less than $1 for every $100 set aside for enforcement. As a result, the nation's ability to evaluate whether its drug policies work is no better now than it was 20 years ago, when drug-control efforts began to accelerate, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies.

The assessment of enforcement activities is severely hampered by an absence of adequate, reliable data on both drug consumption and the actual cost of illegal drugs, the report points out. Such data are critical because a major goal of enforcement is to reduce drug supply and drive up costs, thereby cutting consumption. Work should begin immediately to develop better methods for obtaining both types of data.

"Neither the necessary data systems nor the research infrastructure to gauge the usefulness of drug-control enforcement policies currently exists," said Charles F. Manski, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and Board of Trustees Professor in Economics, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. "It is unconscionable for this country to continue to carry out a public policy of this magnitude and cost without any way of knowing whether, and to what extent, it is having the desired result. Our committee strongly recommends that a substantial, new, and robust research effort be undertaken to examine the various aspects of drug control, so that decision-making on these issues can be better supported by more factual and realistic evidence."

In 1998 the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy asked the committee to review the entire range of data and research that might inform policy on illegal drugs, and explore ways to integrate findings from diverse disciplines to enhance understanding of drug abuse and of the operation of drug markets. The following year, the committee released a Phase I report that assessed two prominent cocaine-control studies and found neither adequate to serve as the basis for public policy. This final report offers general conclusions about overall research gaps and makes recommendations to close them.

Enforcement activities, in the committee's view, comprise not only domestic efforts aimed at prohibiting the manufacture, sale, possession, or use of illegal drugs, but also international policies to reduce the supply of drugs through crop eradication and the disruption of drug trafficking. As measured by spending, enforcement activities now represent the primary thrust of U.S. drug-control policies, the report says. Between 1981 and 1999, the country's expenditures in this area jumped more than tenfold. Additionally, U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 1998 show that 1.6 million people had been arrested for drug offenses, three times as many as in 1980. And 289,000 drug offenders were incarcerated in state prisons, 12 times the number in 1980.

But such enforcement measures often are embraced without the benefit of scientific evidence indicating whether they can indeed make much of a difference, or any at all. Existing surveys do not collect enough information to shed sufficient light on how drug markets operate, the committee said. Current surveys also do not illuminate the dynamics of how users begin to consume drugs, how they decide to step up their use, and what factors play a role in their decision to quit. In addition to addressing these gaps, surveys should obtain details about the quantity of drug consumption to more accurately estimate overall consumption rates -- a key factor in determining the economic vitality of illegal drug markets.

Accurate information on how much drugs cost also is needed to better comprehend how drug users respond to price changes. Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other law-enforcement agencies collect some price information, these data do not provide a solid foundation for analyzing the causes and consequences of fluctuations. Current enforcement policy has indeed increased drug prices relative to what they otherwise would be, but the magnitude of the increase is not known. Moreover, there is little understanding of which policy components have brought about this result, the extent to which higher costs have decreased consumption, or which drug users have been most affected.

Better data alone, however, will not boost the country's understanding of effective drug-enforcement policy. The committee called for additional research on the extent to which producers and traffickers thwart enforcement in one geographic area by moving their smuggling routes or production elsewhere. Furthermore, research is needed to determine how the effects of supply-reduction activities should be measured, and to pinpoint the typical time lag between successful enforcement operations and changes in the way that producers and traffickers conduct business.

A rational drug policy also must take into account the costs and benefits of drug penalties, the committee said. For example, the relationship between the severity of penalties and the initiation and termination of drug use should be researched.

As part of its work, the committee reviewed studies on the value of a wide range of prevention activities and found mixed results. Some prevention efforts do appear to be helpful in delaying the initiation of drug use or reducing the frequency of marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol use among minors. However, because most attention has been focused on evaluating school-based approaches, the success of many other strategies is unknown, the committee said.

At the same time, many popular programs -- such as "zero tolerance" projects -- have not been evaluated at all, or have been found to have little impact on illegal drug use, as in the case of D.A.R.E. Yet large sums of public funds continue to be allocated for programs whose effectiveness is unknown or known to be limited, the committee noted. Given such trends, current efforts to evaluate drug-prevention strategies should be significantly improved.

The study was sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education

Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs

Charles F. Manski (chair)
Board of Trustees Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

James Anthony
Departments of Mental Hygiene and Epidemiology
School of Public Health, and
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
School of Medicine
Johns Hopkins University

Alfred Blumstein1
J. Erik Jonsson Professor of Urban Systems and Operations Research
H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management
Carnegie Mellon University

Richard J. Bonnie2
John S. Battle Professor of Law
School of Law, and
Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy
University of Virginia

Jeanette Covington
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

Denise C. Gottfredson
Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
University of Maryland
College Park

Philip B. Heymann
James Barr Ames Professor
Harvard Law School;
John F. Kennedy School of Government; and
Center for Criminal Justice
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Joel L. Horowitz
Henry B. Tippie Research Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
University of Iowa
Iowa City

Robert J. MacCoun
Associate Professor of Public Policy
Department of Public Policy
Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy
University of California

Mark H. Moore
Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy and Management
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

William D. Nordhaus
A. Whitney Griswold Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Charles P. O'Brien2
Professor and Vice Chair of the Psychiatry Treatment Research Center, and
Chief of Psychiatry
VA Medical Center
University of Pennsylvania

Robert H. Porter
William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Northwestern University, and
Research Associate
National Bureau of Economic Research
Evanston, Ill.

Paul R. Rosenbaum
Professor of Statistics
Department of Statistics
Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania

James Q. Wilson
James Collins Professor of Management
Department of Political Science
University of California
Los Angeles


Carol V. Petrie
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, Institute of Medicine