Coincidence

The Drug Policy Alliance has such great regard for the truth that its reports dole out the precious substance with a sparing hand.

This morning, I got an email from a friend who isn’t involved in the War About Drugs but knows a great deal both about drug abuse and about my views on the topic. Like me, he is neither a hard-core warrior nor a flat-out legalizer. He had just received a fund-raising pitch for the Drug Policy Alliance, signed by George Soros. (I should note that Soros is one of my heroes; I can’t think of an individual in our lifetimes whose philanthropy – especially in the former Soviet Bloc – has created more value for the world.)

My friend wrote, “It looks good. Is it?”

I wrote back “In a word, no. DPA is the main drug-legalization group. They’re not very forthcoming about their actual aims.”

Of course, that’s the point; DPA sounds much more reasonable on paper than it is in practice. You might not guess that its announced goal of “drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights” means in practice opposition to any effective form of drug abuse control.

Then, when I got to work, I found in my mail a slick (in both senses) report on drug courts from DPA. It’s unsigned, which I would say reflected prudence on the part of the author or authors; it is not the sort of document anyone with any scholarly self-respect would want his name attached to.

Now, I’m not a fan of drug courts as they currently exist – they enroll too many low-level offenders without severe drug problems who would have done better with a good leaving-alone – so many of the report’s criticisms of drug courts seem on target to me. But the level of sleaze in the argumentation is truly breathtaking.

One of the subheads of the report reads:  “Finding: Incarceration Sanctions Do Not Improve Outcomes.” But the curious reader (no doubt a minority) will search the text in vain for the evidence supporting that very strong claim. Instead, one finds a broad-brush critique of the body of research that finds sanctions are in fact useful, based in part on the fact that the studies don’t distinguish between jail time and other forms of sanctioning. But in fact no actual study shows that “Incarceration Sanctions Do Not Improve Outcomes.” The authors simply hope that you will accept their assertion of the absence of evidence as being evidence of the absence of benefits.

It’s not as if the evidence were hard to find. With impeccable taste, the report cites the Congressional testimony of Angela Hawken criticizing the “evidence-based practice” movement for insufficient attention to the quality of the evidence.

But that testimony isn’t mostly about the problems with evidence-based practice (such as evaluations by program sponsors). It’s mostly about Hawken’s own work on HOPE, a primarily sanctions-oriented program for reducing drug use, crime, and incarceration among drug-involved offenders, which was subjected to a very careful study including a randomized controlled trial:

The results of the randomized controlled trial (RCT) … were large reductions in missed appointments, positive drug tests, recidivism, revocation and incarceration days.

The accompanying table gives numerical values for the “large reductions”: a third as many positive drug tests – despite the fact that the experimental group faced random testing rather than the easier-to-beat scheduled testing – and half as many no-shows, new arrests, revocations, and incarceration days. That’s a far more impressive set of outcomes than any treatment-oriented program can show. And yet, because the HOPE results don’t fit the DPA’s agenda, the report simply ignores them; the program is never mentioned.

The DPA’s basic claim is that the purposes of the criminal justice system are so inconsistent with the goal of improving the welfare of offenders that it is impossible to “provide health-oriented treatment within a punitive structure.” This would surprise the hell out of George Vaillant, whose classic Natural History of Alcoholism found a substantial number of alcoholics whose only periods of sustained sobriety outside prison walls was achieved while they were on parole.

If it were true, as the report asserts, that punishment is effective in changing behavior only when the subject is perfectly rational, then it would follow that people in the grip of addiction would not respond to punishment.  But while it’s possible to do a rational-actor model of deterrence (as Gary Becker famously did) in fact the extinction of behavior by aversive consequences can be demonstrated in imperfectly rational organisms ranging from flatworms to sophomores. In any case, the HOPE results are what they are, and no amount of theorizing can make them go away.

The report is rich in fallacy and evasion:  for example, it elides the category “people arrested in this instance for drug possession” to the category “people whose only offense is using drugs.” When someone with a history of burglary is arrested for crack possession, that person’s health – while undeniably important – is not the only value in play when deciding how to deal with him; the victims of the burglaries he is likely to continue to commit if he doesn’t stop using expensive drugs also have an interest in the outcome.

The report praises California’s treatment-oriented, largely sanction-free Proposition 36 for reducing the number of people incarcerated for drug possession, but never mentions the finding (again, by Hawken and her colleagues) that the avoided incarceration for possession was fully made up for by increased incarceration for property and violent crimes among Prop 36 beneficiaries.

Drug warriors and anti-prohibitionists share an ethic of controversy that judges facts and scientific findings by the support they provide for pre-chosen policy conclusions, rather than basing conclusions on even-handedly gathered evidence. Those of us looking for better outcomes from drug policy have learned that the truth does not lie at some “golden mean” between those extremes, but largely at right angles to their polarity.

Footnote Naturally, these columns are open to whatever response the DPA would like to offer. I promise not to edit or censor anything the group chooses to submit, though I might be moved to offer some additional comments of my own.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “Coincidence”

  1. “You might not guess that its announced goal of “drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights” means in practice opposition to any effective form of drug abuse control.”

    Nah, quite a few people would guess exactly that. The inclusion of “human rights” is a dead giveaway, as they’re in practice one of the biggest costs of any policy other than flat out legalization, so opponents of such tend not to make much mention of them. Being flat out determined to force other people to comply with your own preferences generally does preclude putting a high value on human rights, after all.

  2. Presumably the human rights of the victims of alcohol-induced murder, rape, and assault don’t count? That’s the great libertarian fallacy: the idea that only state action, never private action, can threaten human rights.

  3. Mark,
    I must say, this is the first reasonably convincing attack I’ve seen you make on DPA. Most of your attacks boil down to saying that DPA doesn’t use Marquis of Queensberry rules in a knife fight. To which I can only reply: “D’oh.” Here is the first time I’ve seen you accuse them of bad policy, with enough supporting detail to make it stick. Do it a few more times, and I might stop giving DPA checks. Or not. I already give checks to the drug warriors, by the name of “taxes.” I guess it would only be fair and balanced to continue paying DPA, even if you finally convince me that they are as bad as the drug warriors.

  4. What about the negative externalities of your Drug Control Policies? I rather prefer to happen those abuses than the consequences that Drug Control brings about. This is, I bet you that “any” Drug Control Policy causes more harm to inocent and productive people than flat-out legalization. Even more, you cannot prove that legalization will bring about more abuses, because the policy has not been implemented; you can even design policies to “control” the “social harm” from drug consumtion.Mr. Kleiman, I will be really hapy to read an article in which you prove that social harm is higuer with flat-out legalization than with “your” Drug Control policies. Stop assuming and do it. You do not do that in any of your work. Y want to see it. Thank you.

  5. Presumably the human rights of the victims of alcohol-induced murder, rape, and assault don’t count?

    Those outcomes aren’t inherent or rigidly connected to alcohol distribution or possession or consumption. A person, during an alcohol intoxication episode, may or may not commit any of these crimes. Criminal sanctions for drug possession are unqualified and applicable to even the vast majority of possessors who don’t commit any of the classical crimes (murder,rape..). It’s a statistics-induced treatment applied to an entire class of behavior, sustained by ‘hyperbolized’ fear and moralizing.

  6. My responses to daksya and Robert Smith are the same: making alcohol freely available does in fact cause enormous amounts of violence (and highway carnage, mostly not deliberate). It’s a statistically certain, though not necessarily predictable in each individual case, consequence of the policy of legalization.

    I have no interest in defending current policies; I’ve been fighting them for thirty years. I have written in detail about how to have prohibition with fewer side effects, and how to have legal alcohol with less violence. And the DPA and its fellow anti-prohibitionists simply keep chanting “Drug war bad! Drug war bad!”

    Ebenezer, I’ve written three books and more academic papers than I care to count about drug policy. Not every fact and argument in them has gone on this blog.

    If you think that writing checks to an organization that opposes programs to reduce both crime and incarceration is a good use of your money, it’s a free country.

  7. making alcohol freely available does in fact cause enormous amounts of violence (and highway carnage, mostly not deliberate)

    A)How many episodes of alcohol intoxication episodes occur in a year (US)? What proportion of these episodes resolve in violence and carnage? Are these outcomes (more-or-less) uniformly distributed across usage set & setting, such as bar vs. restaurant vs. frat party vs. home gathering.etc?

    B)Other than also being a drug, why does the alcohol experience generalize?

  8. Mark wrote: That’s the great libertarian fallacy: the idea that only state action, never private action, can threaten human rights.

    That’s one of the two great libertarian fallacies, the other is that there is no such thing as children who sometimes need state protection from their liberated parents’ choices, including drug and alcohol abuse

  9. The great statist falacy is that, once you’ve proven you can justify doing something in extremity, you’re justified in doing it for any reason whatsoever. Prove that you can tax people to fund a military to stop Stalin from invading and setting up death camps, and you’re free to tax to support ballet.

  10. Professor Kleiman–When someone with a history of burglary is arrested for crack possession, that person’s health – while undeniably important – is not the only value in play when deciding how to deal with him; the victims of the burglaries he is likely to continue to commit if he doesn’t stop using expensive drugs also have an interest in the outcome.

    This reasoning is badly flawed. Cocaine is only expensive because it’s illegal. If it were legal and therefore cheap, your hypothetical drug-user would no longer have the incentive to commit burglary.

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