The US Retreats in the War on Drugs

THE soporific proceedings of the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs earlier this month in Vienna were jolted by a United States announcement that the Bush administration will slash its contribution to the UN Drug Control Program by nearly 40 percent this year. After years of hectoring the rest of the world community to do their part in the worldwide war on drugs, Washington has sounded the trumpet of retreat from the field of battle.

In March President Bush joined six Latin American presidents in San Antonio to vow support for "a comprehensive and multilateral strategy to address the problem of illegal drugs." The national leaders said they "reaffirm our solid commitment to the antidrug efforts of international organizations, notably the UN." But now the State Department has left Latins grumbling betrayal and asking what the president's solid commitment is worth.

For their part, the West Europeans and Japanese, who pay for the bulk of UN antidrug programs, ask why they should carry the load for the international effort when the country with the biggest drug problem decides to fold its tent. The US reports somewhat more heroin use, and 50 times more cocaine use, than all the countries of the European Community combined. It has the most at stake in UN projects of crop curtailment, law-enforcement support, and demand reduction.

With the US's doleful drug problems, it is in Americans' own interest for Washington to lead all the wealthy countries in increasing contributions to the global drug program - "burden-sharing" in the war on drugs. This program provides funds for well-regarded alternative development projects in crop-growing areas, training for police and judges, and drug education and treatment in 60 countries. But by spurning the UN program, Washington is inviting the Europeans and Japanese to reduce their own support o f international antidrug efforts.

Europeans are amazed because the US is already making a puny contribution to the UN drug program, yet UN activities are disproportionately focused on inter-American problems. The US pledge to the agency last year was only $4.5 million - just 3 percent of the $172 million entrusted to the State Department's bureau of international narcotics matters (and less than what the bureau spends on its own administrative overhead). Other member states provided over $65 million.

Yet fully half of the UN Drug Control Program budget went to activities in Latin America and the Caribbean, mostly in Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru - precisely the countries most linked to Americans' own drug problems. This rate of return on programs directly of interest to Americans is more than seven times the US investment. Moreover, there is far more public support in these countries for undertaking programs sponsored by the UN than for gringo programs seemingly pushed on them by Washington. Bu t these are lesser concerns to official Washington than is its maintenance of direct control.

THE administration decided to cut its UN contribution after Congress voted to fund no increase in US antidrug programs with individual countries, for which the president had asked for spending increases. (In all fairness, the State Department also originally sought to double the US contribution to the UN program, which the president failed to include in his budget.)

Congressional appropriators, increasingly skeptical about the results of the bilateral programs, denied the additional money - so the State Department intends to cannibalize the UN program in order to free up some more money for its bilateral programs.

Administration officials say they cannot point to "results" from UN projects, and therefore prefer to support US-directed programs instead. Unfortunately, results from these richly funded programs are even harder to quantify. Audits last fall by the General Accounting Office and the State Department's own inspector-general sharply criticized the effectiveness and management of the US programs.

The administration has also pointed to a troubling increase in heroin use in the US, foreshadowing a resurgence, in new smokable and inhalable forms, of this drug. But opium production and transit are greatest in precisely those areas where the US, for political reasons, cannot offer bilateral programs: the newly independent states of formerly Soviet Central Asia, where poppy cultivation is exploding, as well as Burma, Afghanistan, and Iran.

The UN Drug Control Program is the one global sponsor of antidrug efforts that is politically welcome everywhere. The Europeans and Japanese praise its effectiveness, and will join in sharing the burden. A shrewd US government would secure major increases in these countries' antidrug spending by channeling far more of its own antidrug dollars through the UN program. Congress would do well to reverse the administration's foolish cut and earmark the full UN drug contribution.

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