Critics say US needs more data to fight war on drugs

``You can't fight a war without any maps,'' says Harvard Kennedy School scholar Mark Kleiman. But that's what the United States is doing in its ``war on drugs,'' he says. America is fighting a war without knowing what it is fighting. ``Until the US government knows as much about the market for cocaine as Procter & Gamble knows about the soap flakes market, it is hard to take seriously the notion of a `war' on drugs,'' says Mr. Kleiman, who specializes in law enforcement.

Acquiring accurate data is feasible and not a major cost, says Mark Moore, a Kennedy School professor. Experts in the private sector and Congress agree that more data is needed. It is not being collected now because the project falls between the spheres of academics and politicians, Professor Moore says.

Academics want the data, but there's no incentive for them to design or run programs, says Moore. Politicians want action, he says. To ask ``how effective is this course of action?'' is to appear indecisive and endanger the commitment to act.

One critic traces the problem to 1981, when the Reagan administration ``abandoned its leadership role'' in the war on drugs by turning it over to the states. The problem isn't ``no maps,'' says this congressional aide - the problem is 50 different ones. ``It's like trying to design a commercial aviation network without any air traffic controllers,'' he says.

In order to gauge the impact of a police action, an education program, and a treatment clinic, says Kleiman, you need consistent data over a period of time to know whether you're winning or losing. Who buys drugs, how often, and where? How much does he pay? When did he start using drugs?

The major yardsticks of nationwide drug use today are a triennial household survey, a yearly survey of graduating high school seniors, and the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). (The new federal drug bill mandates more extensive recordkeeping and evaluation.)

The household survey does not cover major populations at risk of drug abuse: the homeless, those in college dorms and armed-forces barracks, and convicts. Furthermore, major results are not available for three years after the data are collected, says Peter Reuter, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation. The available estimates of the scale of the US drug problem are ``distressingly poor,'' says Mr. Reuter, a prominent expert on the illegal drug market.

The survey of high school seniors ignores a critical high-risk group: dropouts. DAWN collects reports from selected hospitals and medical examiners on drug-related admissions and deaths.

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