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.

Comments

  1. JMG says

    What is the evidentiary basis for the claim that drug abuse is a “big problem?”. From where I sit, most of the problems attributed to drug abuse are caused by treating a complex of medical and social problems with a criminal justice response, and have little to do with abuse qua abuse.

    The following are a list of problems; in terms of actual severity (numbers harmed, intensity of harm), where would drug abuse by itself, _absent the drug war_, rank in this list?

    1) the rapid destabilization of the earth’s thermostasis due to carbon emissions
    2) the acidification of the global sea due to same
    3) the collapse of global fisheries and the resulting empty oceans caused by overfishing and acidification undermining the bottom of the food chain
    4) human population soaring to well above planetary carrying capacity and driving other species to extinction faster each year by habitat destruction
    5) widespread hunger and persistent crippling malnutrition
    6) rapid topsoil losses in the earth’s arable lands due to unsustainable farming practices
    7) rapid retreats of the earth’s glacial freshwater storage reservoirs on which billions rely for drinkable water
    8) widespread contamination of all vertebrates with persistent organic pollutants and endocrine mimicking chemicals
    9) the dominance of spending on the military industrial complex in the United States
    10) the persistent operation and effects of racism in the criminal justice system in the United States
    11) the unprecedented hyper inequality of wealth in the world generally, and especially in the US
    12) the simultaneous denial of access to health care for tens of millions of Americans with gross overspending on treatments for the wealthy that are unproven

    … I’ll stop at a dozen. To my mind, every single one of those problems dwarfs drug abuse and each one would merit a Drug War or two’s worth of committed response. How about you, professor? Where would you rank drug abuse in that list?

    And no points for Reality-Based Policy-Making for claiming that drug abuse causes any of these problems, unless you can show that drug abuse is causal rather than correlative.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      I would count the 7 million people who died every year from tobacco and alcohol a problem, as I would the fact that if tobacco disappeared today, a billion human beings would still be slated to die from the health damage they have experienced already. Tobacco and alcohol as well not incidentally contribute to global economic inequality, climate change and water waste.

      It is easy to argue that drugs are not much of a problem as long as they are legal, right up to the moment that you look at the impact of the drugs that are in fact legal.

      • JMG says

        I do not argue that drugs are “Not much” of a problem. I ask for context, for devoting resources to problems in a way that makes sense.

        You’ve presented a number for what you say are the number of deaths attributable to alcohol and tobacco. Without getting too deeply into how many age-adjusted life expectancy years those seven million deaths represent … Since mortality is still one to a customer, far as I knw … I am asking that you who claim that drug abuse is a big problem present some context.

        The first seven or eight problems on my list, I suggest, dwarf the magnitude of the drug abuse problem, in both absolute numbers and in terms of loss of life expectancy (since global environmental chaos will target the young and poor preferentially). Moreover, most of the victims of the problems that I list had no hand whatsoever in causing those massive problems.

        None of those problems can be solved with a purely technical approach; we desperately need intelligent social science research applied to see if we can indeed be smarter than yeasts that overrun their resource base. One of the evils of the drug war is the diversion of social scientists away from these vastly more pressing problems and into self-justifying endless Vietnam of social science. Just as Vietnam had its mcnamara and RAND in addition to all the poor grunts, the drug war not only provides jobs (and boundless temptation for corruption) for endless battalions of police and prison guard unions, it also diverts social science research away from our most serious challenges.

        Again, there are a lot of grave problems to be addressed. Does drug abuse justify the focus it has?

      • lynnjo says

        It’s not clear where you get your “7 million people a year” who die from alcohol and tobacco, so I can’t argue with it.

        But I can mention that every single one of those 7 million people would have died anyway. Some people might value a more enjoyable life in youth and middle age more highly than they value longevity.

        Why should other people make the choice for them?

        • Keith Humphreys says

          It’s not clear where you get your “7 million people a year” who die from alcohol and tobacco, so I can’t argue with it.

          It comes from a known right-wing drug war group: The World Health Organization.

          But I can mention that every single one of those 7 million people would have died anyway. Some people might value a more enjoyable life in youth and middle age more highly than they value longevity.

          This is a common argument for why we should eliminate PEPFAR and other safe sex promoting programs, but it is not one I agree with.

          Why should other people make the choice for them?

          Good question, why should the tobacco and alcohol companies get substantial government aid in so much of the world to influence people’s choices and promote addiction?

          • Freeman says

            Why should other people make the choice for them?

            Good question, why should the tobacco and alcohol companies get substantial government aid in so much of the world to influence people’s choices and promote addiction?

            Poor answer — unresponsive.

            While most of us can easily agree that there are good arguments to be made for the sentiment behind the counter-question, raising the entirely separate issue of unwarranted government aid is a diversionary canard which does absolutely nothing to address the question responded to. The counter-question asks us to depart from reality — equating promotion and influence with using the violent force of law to deny fellow adult citizens recognition of their natural right as equals to choose for themselves — if we are to accept it as responsive to the question posed.

            What I find most disappointing is that the original conversation seems to have ended. I think JMG is making a very important point and his question is even better.