The Slate Gist

Clinton’s Drug War

Republicans charge that President Clinton has forsaken the war on illegal drugs. They plan to make this an issue in the fall campaign. 1) How has American drug use changed during the Clinton presidency? 2) How has government drug policy changed? 3) Is there any connection?

Drug use among teen-agers has risen steadily in recent years. According to the best study: In early 1995, 39 percent of high school seniors reported having used an illicit drug during the previous year, up from 31 percent in early 1993. But this rise began before Clinton took office. Reported teen-age drug use started climbing during the last year of the Bush presidency, after a dozen years of decline. In early 1992, the figure was 27 percent.

Marijuana is driving these numbers. In early 1995, 34 percent of seniors reported having smoked pot or taken hash during the previous year, up from 22 percent in early 1992. But teens also report using more LSD (up from 5.6 to 8.4 percent), more inhalants (up from 6.2 percent to 8 percent) and more crystal methamphetamine, or “ice” (up from 1.3 percent to 2.4 percent). All these increases began during the third or fourth year of the Bush administration. Many drug experts believe that teen drug use today portends a higher rate of adult drug addiction in a decade.

Adult drug use has barely changed during the Clinton years. In 1994, 12.2 million Americans reported having used an illegal drug during the previous year, up a tick from 11.4 million in 1992. But a previous rapid decline has stopped: Reported adult drug use fell by half during the 1980s, from a high of nearly 25 million users in 1979. The number of hard-core cocaine and heroin users, between 2.5 million and 3 million, has been stable during the Clinton years. But methamphetamine (speed) deaths more than doubled between 1991 and 1993, and experts believe the drug is gaining popularity.

The best available FBI numbers–none of which are much good–suggest that drug crime has neither surged nor receded during the past three years. Federal, state, and local arrests for drug offenses rose slightly, to 1.35 million, in 1994. The number of drug-related murders fell a tiny bit in 1993 and 1994.

Drug policy: The federal government will spend about $13.8 billion on drug programs in fiscal 1996, divided among 12 departments and dozens of agencies. The drug czar’s office, officially known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is supposed to coordinate this spending. State and local governments disburse another $15-odd billion to fight drugs, most of it on police and prisons.

Clinton drug policy has barely differed from Bush drug policy in either scope or action. Total federal drug spending has increased every year of the Clinton presidency, though more slowly than it did under Bush and Reagan. Drug spending rose 83 percent during the Bush years, from 6.7 billion in 1989 to 12.2 billion in 1993. Total federal spending, by contrast, rose only 23 percent during that period. (Most of the drug-spending increase occurred during the first two years of the Bush administration. During Bush’s last year, drug spending rose only 2.2 percent.) Under Clinton, drug spending has risen 13.2 percent in three years, compared with an increase of 11.6 percent in the federal budget as a whole. (But Clinton has asked for a 10 percent increase, to $15.1 billion, in fiscal 1997.)

Under Clinton, the United States spends about two-thirds of federal drug money on supply reduction and one-third on demand reduction, the same ratio as under Bush. Prevention programs receive about $1.5 billion every year, roughly the same as they did under Bush. Criminal-justice costs eat 50 percent of the drug budget, about the same percentage as they did under Bush. The Bush administration opposed federal funding of needle-exchange programs: The Clinton administration has continued that policy.

Two policy shifts have occurred under Clinton. First, the administration cut spending for interdiction and international supply reduction from $2 billion in 1993 to $1.6 billion in 1995. But the Clinton administration has had the same success (or lack of it) interdicting drugs as its predecessors. Cocaine seizures averaged 113.8 tons annually from 1993 through 1995, exactly the same as during Bush’s presidency. And the feds are seizing more heroin and marijuana than they did under Bush.

Drug prices have fallen slightly in the last three years. But given the global supply glut–the U.S. government seized about a ton of heroin in 1995, compared with worldwide heroin production of 400 tons–many experts question whether interdiction has any effect on street prices. In any event, Clinton is now reversing the interdiction cuts. He has asked Congress to increase interdiction funding by 7 percent and international program funding by 25 percent in 1997.

Second, Clinton hasn’t used the bully pulpit to speak out against drug use nearly as often as his two predecessors did. The drug issue hasn’t figured high on the president’s domestic agenda until this year.

Drug-policy experts and social scientists seem to agree that social and cultural factors are driving up teen drug use. A decade ago, kids were bombarded by anti-drug messages. Journalists and filmmakers relentlessly publicized the horrors of crack addiction and drug violence; the death of college basketball star Len Bias in 1986 drove home the dangers of cocaine. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the Partnership for a Drug Free America propagandized ceaselessly about the perils of drugs.

In 1989, the big three TV network newscasts aired 518 stories about the issue. By 1991, that figure had plummeted to 61. The Gulf War drove drugs off the newscasts, and the story never returned. The Bush and Clinton administrations kept spending billions on drug prevention, but the frenzy of the 1980s dissipated, and the culture changed. Rock and hip-hop music increasingly celebrate marijuana and other drugs. Television, radio, and print outlets are donating less time and space to anti-drug advertising. Surveys suggest that baby boomers, many of them former marijuana users themselves, may be reluctant to warn their kids about drugs.

To the extent that a president can and should keep the drug issue at a roiling boil in society at large, President Clinton has not done so.

A summary of the 1995 Monitoring the Future Study on teen-age drug use is on the Web, as is the 1994 Household Survey on Drug Abuse. You also can download the text of President Clinton’s 1996 National Drug Control Strategy.