Beyond the war about drugs

Jon Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer and I have some thoughts on drug policy in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. And Beau has an essay on the uncertainties surrounding cannabis policy – especially the effect of legal pot on heavy drinking – drawn from our forthcoming book, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.

My favorite line got cut, so I’ll use it here:

Wholesale drug legalization is to drug policy as the flat tax is to fiscal policy or the gold standard to monetary policy: a fine sound-bite or Tweet that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

But the main point of the piece is that the current regime of undifferentiated drug law enforcement and mass incarceration is not the only alternative to legal availability of the currently illicit drugs: we could choose instead to enforce our current laws more intelligently.

 

Comments

  1. says

    If these “hard” drugs were sold on more or less the same terms as alcohol, there is every reason to think that free enterprise would work its magic of expanding the customer base, and specifically the number of problem users, producing an alcohol-like toll in disease, accident and crime.

    How does one respond to the above sentiment

    a)Other than being “hard drugs” – a vague term, not a rigorous taxonomic category – how does the experience of legal alcohol relate to legal heroin or powder cocaine?

    b)Without stating it outright, the authors assume that the new adopted legalization regime would be the same as the existing alcohol regime. In the post about George Will’s column on HOPE, I stated* why this was unlikely.

    *http://www.samefacts.com/2012/04/drug-policy/the-8020-rule-and-hope/comment-page-1/#comment-91566

  2. says

    While I fully support all these prescriptions, I remain skeptical that these–on a large scale–are compatible with the modern incentive structures of policing in the U.S. E.g., when will federal police grants require the reduction of drug arrests/incarceration periods? We are aware that arrests, criminal records, and incarceration are costs in the big picture, but most police departments, DAs and prosecutors don’t seem to operate under that accounting, and I can’t imagine they ever will. They will desperately hold onto their stats (bigger being always better) kicking and screaming until citizens yank them away through ballot initiatives and the like; and even then we see they resist following the laws that the public hands them.

  3. Keith Humphreys says

    Simply outstanding WSJ editorial, unhysterical, scientifically informed and with a mature appreciation of the complexity of the problem and public policy…these same characteristics will as you know make you the subject of angry attacks, which you should consider high praise.

    • Freeman says

      I hope Mark will post some of those angry attacks here. That would be interesting to see.

    • Freeman says

      Well shoot, by “angry attacks”, I figured you were referring to outrageous comments. Here I was looking forward to laughing and poking fun at the crazies bringing the hate. I read 15 pages of comments on the WSJ article (worth the time, btw) and 30 comments here (also worth the time, as always) and all I got is that Tom Wytiaz finds the piece “infuriating” and David Shellenberger uncharitably refers to “The purportedly expert authors”.

      So how’s this usually go when one of you writes something “Simply outstanding…unhysterical, scientifically informed and with a mature appreciation of the complexity of the problem and public policy”? Threatening phone calls? Mobs come by the office and thunk you guys on the head? Curious minds want to know!

  4. Brett Bellmore says

    “but does anyone consider our current alcohol policies a success?”

    Yes, actually. I can’t recall the last time a drug gang shot it out on Main street, and deaths from people drinking wood grain alcohol and anti-freeze are way, way down. Nor are wineries paying terrorist groups for protection, or opening sidelines in kidnapping.

    Is that not success? It’s fabulous success compared to the war on drugs.

    • says

      And yet there are those 85,000 deaths/year, which look preventable to most people. And you clearly have never seen the consequences of alcohol addiction close up, unless you believe that some fraction of the population is just fated to be destroyed in this way.

      • Professer Katzenkittenz says

        Do you think it would debase the currency if we presented all 85,000 with Darwin Awards?

        • Mark Kleiman says

          Well, yes, since a large number of them are homicide and motor-vehicle-accident victims killed as a result of other people’s drinking rather than their own. Why Brett counts the killing of one drug dealer by another as a more serious matter than a drunken rape-murder I’m not sure.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            Similarly, why you count the terrifying prospect of people getting high as a more serious matter than funding civil war in Mexico leaves me confused.

            Seriously, there are no perfect solutions, and I would never suggest that the situation with regards to alcohol is perfect. It’s just vastly better than it was during Prohibition, and the war on drugs demonstrates why. Unfortunately, you’re so fixated on preventing commerce in drugs, that you’d make sure we retained a black market instead.

          • Freeman says

            Well, yes, since a large number of them are homicide and motor-vehicle-accident victims killed as a result of other people’s drinking rather than their own. Why Brett counts the killing of one drug dealer by another as a more serious matter than a drunken rape-murder I’m not sure.

            Why Mark counts “victims killed as a result of other people’s drinking rather than their own” as preventable by prohibition I’m not sure.

  5. Brett Bellmore says

    What I think is that what’s going on in the war on drugs is redistribution of harm, rather than reduction of it. There may be some reduction in harm for people who’d otherwise use drugs, but it is accompanied by a vast expansion in harm to people who never would have. Funding international terrorism, crimes committed to pay for the inflated costs of drugs, corruption of law enforcement, civil liberties being compromised…

    All the things the drug warriors like to blame on drugs, but which they themselves are actually responsible for.

    So, are things perfect with regards to alcohol? Nope. But at least rum runners aren’t shooting it out in the streets anymore. And, surely, that has to count for an awful lot.

    In short, I think the drug warriors should adopt as their guiding principle, “First, do no harm.” Because they’re doing a terrifying amount of harm right now.

    • says

      You are convinced that a redistribution of harm will be achieved, which seems like common sense, and equally convinced (I assume) that there is no reduction of harm. I find this sort of certainty breathtaking. How do you know this? Aside from being guided by libertarian theory, that is.

      It seems likelier to me that whether harm is reduced or increased by prohibitionist tactics has something to do with the level of harm or benefit caused by the object of prohibition.

      The one new (to me) thought that came from the Beau Kilmer essay was the suggestion that marijuana legalization might increase the level of problem drinking. I’ve got my doubts about that–the effects are so dissimilar that I’d assume it’s not so until it’s proven otherwise–but it’d be worth researching. I could see that happening if alcohol and marijuana were available through the same channels. Perhaps it should be either/or: You can sell one but not the other; you can serve one but not the other. The prospect of seeing a band in a venue without drunks cheers me immensely.

    • Freeman says

      All the things the drug warriors like to blame on drugs, but which they themselves are actually responsible for.

      Right on. It’s interesting that whenever you tell someone they’re supporting the violent Juan Valdez cartel when they feed their caffeine addiction, they laugh at the absurd suggestion that high demand for a mind-altering recreational drug necessarily results in a violent competition to supply that demand and therefore is solely responsible for the violence, but the drug warriors infer that all the time and few seem to notice. It’s not the particular drug or the demand for it, but it’s legal status that makes the difference. You can’t even rationally blame it on the protection of high profits and accumulated wealth, as no drug cartel has ever even come close to amassing the riches of a Microsoft or an Apple (both very high-profit enterprises) or their founders, who somehow managed it all in a highly competitive marketplace without resorting to anywhere near as much overt violence. The difference again is legal status, which provides protection under the law to one enterprise and not the other.

  6. Freeman says

    The U.S. has reached a dead end in trying to fight drug use by treating every offender as a serious criminal. Blanket drug legalization has some superficial charm—it fits nicely into a sound-bite or tweet—but it can’t stand up to serious analysis.

    In the attempt to minimize the harms of drug consumption, between the extremes of blanket prohibition and blanket legalization, both of which fail to stand up to serious analysis as you point out, lies the radical center where drugs are legal under regulated conditions. There, the degree of regulation and conditions of legality can be fine-tuned for each drug to optimally address potential harms to society as a result of it’s use while taking into account the potential harms resulting from attempts at suppressing it’s use. Combine that with your recommended law enforcement focus on the small percentage of problem abusers who cause the largest percentage of harm, and I think there’s the potential for huge improvement over the status quo in terms of harm reduction in the US that is much more consistent with the ideals of a free society and continuous-improvement goals of the democratic process while simultaneously cutting off the air supply of the violent Mexican cartels.

    With the black market left intact, I am skeptical that your recommendations would result in reduction of harm under a prohibition scenario anywhere near as significantly as under properly-regulated conditions, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong. I get your point that politicians are naturally instantly dismissive of any suggestion of legalizing drugs, especially what we refer to as “hard drugs”, for reasons we are unlikely to influence significantly, but that’s your challenge as a respected and sought-after policy advisor who would like to stay that way. ;>) I am free to advocate for what I feel is best regardless of how others may receive it, that’s my privilege as a blog commenter nobody pays much attention to. Concern over lack of political feasibility seems pointless to me if it prevents us from effectively solving problems.

    In any event, a shift in focus from prohibition enforcement for the sake of reducing drug usage toward reduction of overall harm to society, and the underlying acknowledgement and consideration inherent in such a shift that prohibition enforcement itself can contribute to that harm more than it’s effectiveness relieves it, are welcome positive improvements that I fully support. I’d much rather the debate be over the best ways to reduce harm than the best ways to enforce prohibition, as the former is merely difficult and complex, and the latter is simply a fool’s errand.

  7. Tom Wytiaz says

    I think what is most infuriating about these type of pieces is that you seem to give zero regard to the drug user and what it is like to be a criminal for using your drug of choice. You also do not address harsh penalties for simple possession, such as a felony conviction you would get for possession of any amount of certain drugs.

    Outstanding? No, not really, I think some good points were made, but, as usual, its a slam on legalization while not really addressing the real problems with the drug laws. You want to talk about alcohol, great, but lets address the punitive and destructive nature of the drug war. Its a huge issue that reformers are sick of seeing ignored. Why don’t you stop ignoring it? If you think felonies for simple possession of any substance is an appropriate punishment I have to seriously question your integrity.

    There is some big problems with this drug war and you didn’t really address any of them. Thanks.

  8. Elevisor says

    Hey mark – sounds like you all have drunk the “Kevin Sabet” Kool-aid. “let’s make prohibition work better” and think we did something worthwhile. Woo-hoo!

    Drugs will be legalized by 2020.

  9. says

    “If these “hard” drugs were sold on more or less the same terms as alcohol, there is every reason to think that free enterprise would work its magic of expanding the customer base.”

    I am extremely curious as to how the authors imagine this would happen. At present, we have one legal recreational drug (alcohol) and myriad illegal recreational drugs. The total amount of recreational drugs consumed each year is finite. The only way that the total number of drug users could increase (as opposed to existing users simply changing their drug of choice), would be for people who currently abstain from both alcohol and illicit drugs to start using intoxicating substances following their legalization.

    Do Kleiman et al. believe that there is currently a large group of potential addicts who abstain from alcohol due to a dislike of its effects and from illicit drugs due to fear of criminal sanction?

    • says

      Criminal sanctions do prevent use and some percentage of new users will lose control of the use. Prohibition does work to reduce use and to some extent abuse, like a sledgehammer can kill flies in an antique shop.

      • says

        You didn’t address my question, which is where these new users will come from. I agree that criminal sanctions most likely do dissuade some people from using illicit drugs. However, as you well know, said people are free to purchase and consume alcohol without risking arrest.

        Kleiman et al. do not seem to be under the illusion that alcohol is somehow more benign than currently illicit drugs. So, when they talk about the customer base expanding, this means that there must be an increase in the total number of users of alcohol and other drugs. It is only possible for this number to increase if individuals who currently abstain from both alcohol and illicit drugs decide to start getting high following legalization.

        It strikes me as highly unlikely that the teetotaling segment of our population represents a significant reservoir of potential addicts. If they are prone to addiction, why have they not already demonstrated this by abusing legal alcohol? Are they simply waiting for something better to come along?

  10. CharlesWT says

    [...]
    Prohibition is a textbook example of a policy with negative unintended consequences…The demand curve for drugs is extremely inelastic, meaning that people don’t change their drug consumption very much in response to changes in prices. Therefore, vigorous enforcement means higher prices and higher revenues for drug dealers…for a discussion of the basic economic logic:

    “The more effective prohibition is at raising costs, the greater are drug industry revenues. So, more effective prohibition means that drug sellers have more money to buy guns, pay bribes, fund the dealers, and even research and develop new technologies in drug delivery (like crack cocaine). It’s hard to beat an enemy that gets stronger the more you strike against him or her.”
    [...]

    Let’s Be Blunt: It’s Time to End the Drug War

    Although, the price for things like cocaine, that the government is against, is going down while the price for things like education and health care, that the government is for, is skyrocketing. Perhaps we should make education and health care illegal…

    • Mark Kleiman says

      Brett, if you think that crack and “original recipe Coke” are the same thing, I have a bridge for you.
      But you’re not really that silly. Why you pretend to be remains a mystery.

      • CharlesWT says

        No, crack is what you get when you make “original recipe Coke” recipe illegal. How long do you think it would take for concentrated nicotine to hit the streets if tobacco was made illegal.

      • Freeman says

        Original recipe Coke was before prohibition. Crack came after. In a legal market crack manufacturers would get sued out of business.

        • CharlesWT says

          In a legal market, there likely wouldn’t be much demand for something like crack in the first place.

          • Mark Kleiman says

            In the legal market for cocaine, it was frequently used by intravenous injection; recall Sherlock Holmes’s 6% solution.

          • Freeman says

            In the legal market for cocaine, it was frequently used by intravenous injection; recall Sherlock Holmes’s 6% solution.

            In the illegal market for cocaine it is frequently used by intravenous injection, though crack has supplanted much of that. Addicts were “freebasing” (“cooking” coke into smokable crystals) in order to get the I.V.-like rush without the inconvenience of needles before anybody ever heard of crack; recall Richard Pryor setting his hair on fire.

        • Freeman says

          Brett is an engineer. You know what engineers do? They apply theory to design tangible items. Without a good understanding of theory and the skills to apply it, engineering is nothing but trial-and-error (and error and error) guesswork — kinda like our drug policies.

  11. darkcycle says

    “Wholesale drug legalization is to drug policy as the flat tax is to fiscal policy or the gold standard to monetary policy: a fine sound-bite or Tweet that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.” Somebody rescue that straw man before he’s beaten into tiny bits!
    In two decades of advocating for drug law reform I have yet to meet the man who proposed “Wholesale legalization”. Perhaps you could direct me to him so that I might finally meet him, he seems to get a lot of media play from you prohibitionists. BTW, How your “kinder, gentler drug war” meme coming along? Getting a lot of media mileage out of that yet? Adios, Mark.