Harold’s picture of me addressing the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference in Bogotá wearing a DEA cap drew some quite funny proposed captions, along with a fair amount of humorless, moralistic denunciation from some of our commenters.
Oddly, no one seems to have asked the obvious question: Just what was I doing addressing the ISSDP wearing that particular headgear? Thereby hangs a tale.
The cap was a present from Jay Bergman, the DEA head honcho for Latin America, who – being considerably smarter and more open-minded than some of the people who call themselves “drug policy reformers” – decided that if a bunch of drug policy experts were coming his way he ought to find out what we might have to tell him.
My talk – the opening address of the conference – was about the difference between the enforcement perspective, which thinks of actions such as crop eradication as means to the end of reducing drug flows, and the policy-analytic perspective, which asks whether, to what extent, and how each proposed action could reduce personal and social damage. I argued that interdiction couldn’t pass the damage-reduction test because the illicit industry can and does adapt to it.
In the talk, I prefaced the section that took the enforcement perspective with “In my DEA hat, I’d say …”, at which point I put on the cap. When I finished the section and prepared to launch into the alternative analysis, I said, “Now, taking off my DEA hat, I’d say instead …”, again suiting the action to the words. Hardly up to Richard Pryor standards of comedy, but it was good enough to get a laugh from the ISSDP audience and to help me make my point.
The broader joke, of course, is that I have been a vigorous and persistent critic of the drug enforcement effort in general and of various DEA policies in particular, and am currently working with the Washington State Liquor Control Board to develop a regulatory system for the commercial production and sale of cannabis, a project directly contrary not only to the Federal law the DEA enforces but also to the drug-war ideology the DEA espouses.
But in my view being on the other side of a controversy – even a bitter controversy – doesn’t require being personally hostile. I have warm friendships and relations of intellectual respect with some people who support treating all drugs more or less the way we currently treat alcohol, which I think would be a mistake, and also with some people who support more or less our current policies toward illicit drugs, which I regard as a huge disaster and the cause of immense and needless suffering.
Those friendships do not reflect any deficiency on my part either in basic meanness or in the willingness to hold a grudge. It’s because I don’t feel wronged by people who disagree with me; who else can be counted on to point out my errors and thus improve my knowledge about the world? What I resent – what brings out my hostility – is the glibness and intellectual dishonesty that leads some drug warriors to deny that current drug policies do enormous damage and some drug reformers to deny that commercial availability almost inevitably means increased drug abuse.
Anyone who accepts as a starting premise that all policies have both advantages and disadvantages, and are to be judged primarily by their results rather than by their proclaimed intentions, and who is prepared to reason honestly from facts to conclusions in trying to figure out what policies might, on balance, have the best consequences, I take to be my ally. That we reach different conclusions testifies to the complexity and unpredictability of the world and the cognitive limits that encumber all of us: it need not be the case, when two people strongly disagree, that either of them is a fool or a scoundrel.
I’m glad to have found a new ally in Jay Bergman, and will work as hard to correct what I see as the defects in the strategies he is now pursuing as (I hope) he will work to correct the errors he sees in my reasoning. And I’m happy to wear the cap he gave me, just as I’m happy to wear the “Have You Talked to Your Parents About Drugs?” t-shirt I got when I addressed the annual meeting of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy.