Review of Lies, Damned Lies and Drug War Statistics


by Matt B. Robinson and Renee G. Scherlen (SUNY Press, 2007).


Reviewed by Randall G. Shelden, UNLV



Looking back on my career and what I have learned there is a rather consistent theme in my thinking and writing about the subject of crime and justice.  It might go something like this: we have a system in place that has a vested interest in keeping crime (including drug use) at a certain level.  All sorts of careers and a lot of money (literally tens of billions of dollars each year) are dependent upon a steady supply of offenders - even if they have to pass new laws creating new categories of offenders (this especially applies to drugs).  This is why many have used such terms like “crime control industry” or “criminal justice industrial complex.”


Agencies within this complex can sort of "have their cake and eat it too" in that they can have it both ways: when what they do is clearly failing they can merely claim that the problem still exists and they need to continuing doing the same thing (with more money of course).  Obviously when things are going well they can take responsibility. This is the pattern with local police departments and in fact the entire system, namely that when crime is down they take credit because of some program in place; however, when crime goes up, they can shift responsibility to all sorts of variables.  Favorites include a growing population in their jurisdiction (which is not usually that relevant), a growing youth or “crime risk” population (again, not that critical), “broken” or “dysfunctional” families and, two of my favorites, “outside influences” (e.g., gangs moving) or “liberal programs.” 


Another way of putting this is that, as Jeff Reiman has observed, nothing succeeds like failure! 


A friend once told me something he learned when studying for his MBA.  It is called "optimal starting and stopping points."  What this means is that in order to bolster your argument or to make a case that what you are doing is working you pick out a time period that best represents your success and avoid time periods that do not. 


So it has been with the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and Matt Robinson and Renee Scherlen do an exceptional job of showing exactly this in Damned Lies and Drug War Statistics. They do this by critically examining six years (2000-2006) of the National Drug Control Strategy.  They read through each and every annual report, looking especially for both accurate and inaccurate use of statistics and evidence of honesty and dishonesty in each report. They examined each and every claim made by ONDCP and evaluated ONDCP’s stated goals (e.g., reducing drug use and drug availability).


What they found for each year, almost without exception, was an almost total misuse of some very simple statistics (e.g., from various annual drug surveys, such as NHSDA, ADAM, MTF).  They discovered that in many instances ONDCP employed the “optimal starting and stopping points.”  For instance, Robinson and Scherlen found that for the 2000 strategy report ONDCP uses a baseline of 1985 that shows a decline in drug use from that year to 1999.  Yet the ONDCP was not started until 1988 and the largest drop in drug use was between 1985 and 1988, with the rate remaining steady for the rest of the decade.  Other reports use 1979 as a starting point (the peak of drug use).


On another occasion the ONDCP claims to prove that George Bush’s goal during his 2002 “State of the Union speech of a 10% reduction of drug use by youth within two years was met, but uses a time period that started one year prior to Bush’s speech!


The authors also found numerous instances where they cite declines in youth drug use during a certain period, but ignore the fact that drug use was increasing among adults.  In some cases the ONDCP reproduces a chart that clearly shows drug use increasing, but fail to comment on this rather obvious evidence of failure.  On the other hand, on some occasions the ONDCP readily admits “disturbing trends” such as the fact that throughout the decade of the 1990s drug use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders (Monitoring the Future) is “close to record highs.”  Yet in this case, the ONDCP sort of ignores such an obvious failure and instead uses this as evidence of a need to get tougher in the war on drugs!  Nothing succeeds like failure!  Robinson and Scherlen note that ONDCP tends to “celebrate declines even when they are short-term or occurred a decade ago, and downplay increases unless they are being used to create alarm” (p. 66).  More examples like this are presented throughout this book.


Perhaps more importantly, even when there are some decreases in drug use, ONDCP fails to provide any evidence that this is because of what they did.  Moreover, like I said above concerning police departments,  Robinson and Scherlen note that “ONDCP only takes credit when drug use trends decline, but takes no responsibility when drug use trends increase” (p. 68).


One of the most important chapters in this book is chapters 5 and 6 where they examine ONDCP’s claims of success in “healing America’s drug users and disrupting drug markets” and claims concerning the costs of the drug war.  In these two chapters Robinson and Scherlen also critically examine ONDCP claims about the nature of the drug problem itself.  First, ONDCP fails to differentiate between drug use and drug abuse and instead claims that “Drug use promises one thing but delivers something else – something sad and debilitating for users, their families, and their communities.  The deception can be masked for some time, and it is during this time that the habit is ‘carried’ by users to other vulnerable young people.”  This is an outlandish claim totally lacking empirical foundation.  As Robinson and Scherlen correctly note, drug use does not lead to such outcomes and in fact the majority of youths who use drugs do so only a few times and quit completely in their early 20s (p. 96).  Such a conclusion is a general consensus by drug experts – obviously a group ONDCP fails to consult!  ONDCP also claims that drug testing is effective, yet can cite only anecdotal evidence (such as a statement by one woman based upon a one conversation with a grocery bagger – see p. 102) and ignore comprehensive studies that find that it clearly does not work (e.g., as cited on the Monitoring the Future web site).  This is called “confirmation bias” – selecting evidence that supports your position while ignoring contrary evidence.


The ONDCP clearly has failed to disrupt drug markets and there has been a steady decline in the price of illegal drugs, as Robinson and Scherlen clearly show with charts taken from ONDCP’s report.  Yes, you read this correctly: ONDCP reproduces charts that show prices falling yet fail to make any statement that suggests that their goal of raising prices by disrupting drug markets is not working!  This is one of the best points about the Robinson and Scherlen book in that they use readily available data – some reproduced by ONDCP – which clearly contradict ONDCP’s claims!


Robinson and Scherlen also examined claims about the costs of drugs and the drug war.  Once again, they demonstrate that ONDCP misuses statistics.  Here the authors show that the bulk of the costs of drugs stems from the drug war itself and the fact that some drugs have been criminalized.


I could go on and on with more examples.  Suffice it to say that Robinson and Scherlen have provided a thorough critique of the claims made by those in charge of the drug war. This book will no doubt prove to be a valuable resource for those trying to make sense of a war that has created so much havoc within our society.  Incidentally, the first two chapters provide the reader with an excellent overview on the how the drug war came to be, including a brief history of anti-drug legislation.  For those not familiar with this history, these chapters will provide much needed information to fill this gap. Read it, learn from it, use it.