Signs of drug-war shift

Efforts to end a grant program could indicate a change in the administration's approach.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Evidence is beginning to build that the approach to the war on drugs in the United States could be changing - by shifting attention away from small-time drug dealers and individual users toward major drug traffickers.

The nation's drug czar, for one, has alluded to changes in thinking. "Break the business," said John Walters at a congressional hearing earlier this year. "Don't break generation after generation [of poor, minority young men], is what we're going for."

Another sign of a shift involves the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which since 1988 has earmarked federal money for local communities to use in the war on drugs. Many have said the program's structure has been flawed since its inception, and now, President Bush is proposing the elimination of the program by next year - though this budget cut is still being fought in Congress.

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Short of the program's elimination, at least two moves are afoot to address Byrne's problems. The Texas Legislature has passed a bill that places strict limits on the drug task forces created under the program. And Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) of Texas introduced a bill this week in the US House of Representatives that would prohibit states from spending Byrne grant money on drug task forces unless they adopt laws that prevent people from being convicted solely on the word of an informant or law-enforcement officer.

In all, these steps could portend larger changes in the war on drugs. "For so long, the federal government has focused on arresting a lot of low-level drug offenders instead of on stopping drugs from coming into the country or on terrorism," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. "But I think they are getting smarter and realizing that they can't arrest their way out of it."

Indeed, many contend that the current allocation of resources has not been effective. Although prisons around the country are bulging under 1.5 million drug arrests per year, the price of drugs has never been lower, and the purity has never been higher.

In discussing his 2006 budget before a House subcommittee in February, Mr. Walters touched on those concerns. "The issue is how do we best reduce the supply of drugs in the United States at the national and at the local and regional levels," he said, concluding that unless there is a shift in the fundamental approach, "you are chasing primarily small people, putting them in jail, year after year, generation after generation."

What the Bush administration is realizing, especially after Sept. 11, is that federal efforts should be reprioritized and funding better spent, say analysts.

"There is a growing philosophical shift that the federal government shouldn't fund the daily operating expenses of local law enforcement," says David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "They had gotten into paying officers' salaries that local communities should be paying for, and now they realize they need to focus their efforts in more urgent areas like homeland security and defense."

In 2002, Dr. Muhlhausen did a study of the Byrne grant program and found "no evidence that these grants work to reduce crime."

In fact, they may even contribute to it, as scandal after scandal in Texas suggests. The most notorious occurred in the Panhandle town of Tulia, when more than 40 residents were sentenced to prison after a Byrne-funded undercover officer lied in court about selling them drugs during a sting operation in 1999.

Gov. Rick Perry pardoned most of the residents after nearly four years in prison and disbanded the regional drug task force. But scandals involving Byrne grants continue to occur - especially in Texas, which pumps 90 percent of the federal money into task forces, as opposed to other states, which channel 40 percent. (The rest is spent on things like drug treatment and probationary services.)

"The structure of these task forces is so flawed that they create more problems than they solve," says Scott Henson, director of the Police Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. "They are federally funded, state managed, and locally staffed. There is no accountability."

For their part, officers in charge of the drug task forces say they are being limited by the cuts to the Byrne grant program - and at a time when their communities are being ravaged by the methamphetamine epidemic.

In Texas, for instance, the allocation went from $31.6 million in 2004 to $22.7 million in 2005, and many expect that the amount will be reduced again this year. Officers say that those cuts mean several Texas drug task forces will disband at the end of the month. The remaining 20 or so will be supervised by the state Department of Public Safety under the state bill just passed.

Muhlhausen doesn't believe that the Byrne grants will disappear this year, but rather that the $800 million program will be cut again and eventually peter out under continued pressure from the Bush administration.

"I think the administration is realizing that what is a state and local responsibility isn't good fiscal policy" at the federal level, he says. And because the Tulia incident occurred while Mr. Bush was still governor of Texas, he adds, the president is "uniquely positioned to understand how this [Byrne grant] money has been misspent."

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