A Stimulus For The Drug War

Why are stimulus dollars going to bust drug users?

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Here's an additional item I was not able to fit into my examination of stimulus pork (truth be told, there were a LOT of items I could not fit in there.)

The discretionary spending in the stimulus package is essentially one big grab-bag for whatever is politically popular, regardless of its connection to the economy. There is no better example of that than the various spending provisions to ramp up the war on drugs.

(Note: see my previous post on how the drug war affects entrepreneurship here.)

The final version of the stimulus plan includes $125 million for "rural communities" to combat drug crimes. More significantly, it gives $2 billion to the Byrne Formula Grant Program, a little-known funding project in the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Byrne program basically gives states and local governments money for more personnel, equipment, and training to enforce drug laws. The BJA describes it as a step to "improve the functioning of the criminal justice system," but critics of the drug war call it a "massive federal slush fund for local law enforcement.

That's what Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told me. He argues that the Byrne program forces resources down the throats of local law enforcement, making them focus on nonviolent offenders like marijuana users.

The debate about whether or not the drug war is a good idea is well beyond the scope of this blog. But might even supporters of the drug war be bothered by the fact that these provisions are in an economic stimulus bill?

When we think of pork barrel spending, we usually think of frivolous projects like the Bridge to Nowhere. But St. Pierre argues that these drug war provisions are examples of "classic pork" as well. Like superfluous bridges, these grants just pour more money into existing efforts without consideration of whether or not those efforts are working.

This money will probably employ a few more people. But it's hard to argue with a straight face that it's going to soak up anything other than a trivial amount of "idle resources" in the economy. Many would argue, in fact, that during a recession, the police should focus on violent crimes like robberies and burglaries, rather than nonviolent crimes like marijuana use. The Byrne program gives local law enforcement the incentive to prioritize drug crimes because the more they bust, the more money they get from the program.

Again, the merit of this spending is certainly up for debate. But sticking it in a massive stimulus package ensured that it wasn't debated.

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