Wednesday, December 14, 2005

U.S. statistics on cocaine fight challenged

The Kansas City Star

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON — A new congressional report questions the reliability of key U.S. government data on cocaine trafficking, price and purity levels.

The 52-page report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, raises fresh doubts about Bush administration claims of progress in the war on drugs.

The report also warned that an overstretched military, aging equipment, and new tactics by traffickers could hamper the ability of U.S. law enforcement to intercept drug shipments in the future.

The GAO report says that data used to evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. drug interdiction were “problematic,” and numbers on U.S. drug usage tended to be outdated and hard to obtain.

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, responsible for coordinating drug issues and data, disputes parts of the report. David Murray, the office’s policy director, said that the GAO investigators had “some misconceptions” and that “there are still some features of the report that we think are not as careful as they should be.”

Since 2000, the U.S. government has spent $6 billion in an effort to disrupt the international drug trade. Most of the money has been directed at Colombia, which supplies about 90 percent of the cocaine available in the United States.

Officials often produced a range of statistics — from record seizures to acreages of coca crops sprayed with herbicides — as evidence that the money was spent well.

Cocaine seizures reportedly rose from 117 metric tons in 2001 to 196 metric tons in 2004. And last month, John Walters, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, announced that the price of cocaine rose 19 percent and purity declined 15 percent over a seven-month period this year — evidence that cocaine is getting scarcer.

While the GAO report does not say the numbers may be wrong, it says the government needs to obtain more reliable data.

“Production and consumption estimates could be widely off the mark,” and data on U.S. price and purity were outdated and did not necessarily reflect national trends, the GAO investigators said.

The U.S. government estimated that between 325 metric tons and 675 metric tons of cocaine entered the United States in 2004, a range that is too broad to be useful, the report added.


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