Sequestration of a substantial portion of Federal spending, uniformly across all agencies, is set to begin March 1. These impending cuts prompt the question of what effect they will have on the War on Drugs.
These cuts add up to about $85 billion for the remainder of this year and apply (with some exceptions) proportionately to all federal agencies. They will amount to almost five per cent of all expenditures. The list of Drug War agencies affected is amazingly long.
They include the DEA, FBI, and Bureau of Prisons. The Border Patrol, a branch of ICE, is heavily involved. The National Institutes for Drug Abuse and Mental Health are also affected, as may be some of the CDC’s data collection and research. US attorneys’ offices spend much of their time preparing and trying over 14,000 criminal cases a year, about half of them drug-related; and the courts must hear those cases. The Coast Guard diverts many of its resources to the attempted interdiction of drug smugglers. Even the Department of Education must screen some aid recipients for drug convictions and public housing agencies screen against drug users. This list, while long and extensive, is not complete. The Drug War has become so pervasive that few government branches are not affected.
The cuts will vary from agency to agency. Drug War-related activities are a minor part of what the CDC does. Across the board cuts there will have little effect on drug-related activities and, if the drug-related costs were shifted to easy burdens elsewhere in the agency, their gain would be minimal. On the other hand, confinement of those convicted of drug crimes is a major part of the Bureau of Prison’s costs – between one-third and one-half of federal convicts are there because of drug crimes. Much of BOP’s costs are irreducible, going for security, meals, medical costs, housing and clothing. The determinate sentencing laws limit their ability to release non-violent prisoners early. BOP will be hard-pressed to cut five percent.
The Coast Guard’s path is easier to predict. Drug interdiction is far down the list of its priorities. Interdiction resources can easily be shifted to more urgently activities like search and rescue.
At first glance, the Border Patrol looks much like the Coast Guard. It has multiple tasks: preventing illegal entries, blocking contraband and arresting smugglers, stopping terrorists; so it should be able to prioritize those tasks. However, the differences between the agencies probably prevent this. The BP uses the same techniques for all of these tasks. It conducts inspections at entry points and patrols the rest of the border to intercept intruders. However, the BP could make a procedural change that would create large savings. At inspection points, identifying legal entrants is straight forward and takes little time. Searches for contraband are time and resource consuming and create major delays. Simply stopping suspicionless drug searches of those legally crossing the border would save a significant amount of agent labors, leading to large savings.
The courts have to take the cases brought to them. At first glance, all they can do is add to their dockets and let trial delays pile up. Determinate sentencing laws limit their flexibility on plea bargains. However, they do have some indirect discretion; the can pressure U. S. attorneys to file fewer criminal cases. But about twenty years ago, they pressed that power almost to the limits when they “encouraged” the USAs to allow minor drug cases to be tried in state courts. That sponge may already have been squeezed dry.
The Department of Justice could be the game changer. In addition to containing the DEA, FBA, and BOP, it supervises the U. S. attorneys. The FBI and DEA function mainly through field agents. If their budgets are cut, the main effect will be to reduce the number of active agents. Either fewer cases will be investigated or complex cases will be ignored in favor of simpler ones requiring less agent involvement. Less money may be available for paid informants, which would put a major crimp in investigations.
U. S. attorneys may be pressed to put less effort into major news-worthy cases, including those against large medical dispensaries in California, and more effort into simple prosecutions that can be resolved quickly with guilty pleas.
Sequestration may have its greatest effect on the Justice Department at the policy level. For four years, it has been trying to deal with medical marijuana in several states, choosing to ignore patients and small, obscure suppliers. Now it is also faced with legalized marijuana possession in Colorado and Washington. These laws have been in effect for three months now, but all Attorney General Holder has done is to say that a policy announcement will be issued soon. Budget cuts suggest that any kind of heightened enforcement is unlikely. Sequestration may force the acceptance of these new laws as faits accompli, and thus encourage other states to join the bandwagon.
These speculations suggest that the forced budget cuts will not lead to dramatic changes in the Drug War. But some quiet changes may weaken the over-all strategy. Less effort may be put into drug interdiction, leading to lower prices and higher purity for cocaine ad may encourage some Andean producers to bypass the Mexican cartels and resume direct importation. The Administration may be forced to grudgingly be more accommodating to state efforts both for medical marijuana and legalization. In short, the result will probably be a slight acceleration in trends already in progress.
Like most speculations, these are probably wrong. Soon the real world will expose their shortcomings.