Thinking about drug policy

Jon Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer and I try to offer an agenda for drug policy research in the current Issues in Science and Technology. Here’s how it starts:

Drug abuse—of licit and illicit drugs alike—is a big medical and social problem and attracts a substantial amount of research attention. But the most attractive and most easily fundable research topics are not always those with the most to contribute to improved social outcomes. If the scientific effort paid more attention to the substantial opportunities for improved policies, its contribution to the public welfare might be greater.

The current research agenda around drug policy concentrates on the biology, psychology, and sociology of drugtaking and on the existing repertoire of drug-control interventions. But that repertoire has only limited capacity to shrink the damage that drug users do to themselves and others or the harms associated with drug dealing, drug enforcement, and drug-related incarceration; and the current research effort pays little attention to some innovative policies with substantial apparent promise of providing improved results.

At the same time, public opinion on marijuana has shifted so much that legalization has moved from the dreams of enthusiasts to the realm of practical possibility. Yet voters looking to science for guidance on the practicalities of legalization in various forms find little direct help.

All of this suggests the potential of a research effort less focused on current approaches and more attentive to alternatives.