Radley Balko and I disagree about the basic logic of drug policy.
He’d prefer a world in drug consumption was fundamentally unregulated except for ordinary rules about product labeling and perhaps special rules about intoxicated activities, such as driving under the influence. I think the result of that policy would be vastly expanded drug abuse.
Radley, as a libertarian, thinks that if people choose to damage themselves, that’s a problem that calls for private rather than public (i.e., voluntary rather than coercive) intervention. I disagree. We also differ on the likely extent of the increase in drug abuse from replacing the current laws with something closer to the alcohol laws; I’m confident that it would be large, and worried that it might be very large, bringing one or more of the illicit drugs (likely cocaine) to the point of being as big a social headache as alcohol is.
What Radley and I don’t disagree on is that drug prohibition as now managed is hugely and unnecessarily costly, though we differ in our degree of optimism. I’m convinced that it could be made much less costly if we changed our policies about enforcement, treatment, sentencing, and the management of drug-involved offenders; Radley thinks even the residual costs would be higher than can be justified by the reduction in drug abuse.
If giving up on heavy-handed drug enforcement with lots of intrusive investigative technique, extensive use of informants, massive asset forfeitures, and quasi-military tactics risked a big increase in the drug problem, there would at least be a colorable argument for accepting the costs. (The war on the Mafia was well worth winning, and it wasn’t won cleanly. Getting tougher on burglars probably means fewer burglaries.) But in fact there’s no reason to think that the drug problem today is much smaller than it would be with half the drug enforcement effort, half as many dealers behind bars, and much less aggressive tactics. All we’re getting from fighting the drug problem as if it were a war is headaches.
Radley’s latest publication is called Overkill (available as a .pdf on the Cato website or in a very handsome hard copy for $10). It’s a study of the paramilitary, or SWAT, aspects of drug law enforcement, in particular “dynamic entry” and “knock-and-announce” raids on residential property. In a depressing number of cases, the raids are based on faulty information.
The map is especially convincing in showing what Radley calls “an epidemic of ‘isolated incidents’.” What almost all of them have in common is that no one on the law enforcement side was held accountable.