As Talleyrand said about the restored Bourbons, the anti-prohibitionists have learned nothing and forgotten nothing in thirty years of making exactly the same points in exactly the same way. Ethan Nadelmann’s op-ed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal doesn’t admit that “an end to prohibition” means increased availability, and that one of the consequences of increased availability is increased abuse. (It’s not true that “booze flowed as readily” during the Noble Experiment as it did before and after; cirrhosis deaths plunged by 2/3.)
Of course that isn’t where the argument ends; maybe the increased level of abuse is a price worth paying to avoid the bad consequences of prohibition: the harms generated by the illicit markets and by enforcement, plus the loss of liberty and consumers’ surpluses for those (for almost all drugs, the majority) who would use the drugs without falling in to the trap of drug abuse. But that’s where any honest argument has to start: how much more abuse are we going to have as a result of a given change in the laws? And that’s where Nadelmann & Co. relentlessly refuse to start it. Their “vigorous and informed debate” refuses to face the basic trade-off involved.
And, speaking of honesty, Nadelmann refers to “500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations.” Really? How many of the dealers now in prison (most of the people in prison for drug offenses are incarcerated for dealing, not simple possession) were armed? How many actually used violence in the course of their business? How many of those in prison for possession actually have long records of predatory crime? (Hint: the average drug-possession inmate has more burglaries in his criminal history than the average burglary inmate.) The fact that violence isn’t part of the definition of drug offenses doesn’t mean that drug traffickers as a class are “non-violent.” The list of crimes compiled by those spared prison terms under California’s Prop. 36 — including not a few homicides — is rather impressive.
As to substituting taxation and regulation for prohibition, those “strict controls” are themselves prohibitions: it is prohibited to sell untaxed cigarettes, or to sell alcohol to those under 21. And those prohibitions, just like categorical prohibitions on selling or possessing a particular drug, invite evasion and require enforcement. Tobacco smuggling is reported to be a major source of terrorist finance in Europe.
That’s the honest debate we ought to be having: just what should we permit and what should we prohibit, and how should we go about enforcing those prohibitions, to steer between the Scylla of drug abuse and the Charybdis of prohibition side-effects?
David Kennedy has shown in North Carolina that it’s possible to break up street drug markets, thus protecting neighborhoods, with a very small number of arrests. Steve Alm has shown in Hawai’i that it’s possible to keep probationers off meth and out of jail with frequent tests and reliable but mild sanctions. Phil Cook persuasively argues that alcohol is now grossly under-taxed in the U.S. and that we are all “paying the tab” for cheap booze. Yet the Drug Policy Alliance has been conspicuously silent on all of this, and Nadelmann keeps writing the same essay he’s been writing since the mid-70s.
Update And speaking of having learned nothing and forgotten nothing, a word from the Drug Bizarre himself, John Walters. He still doesn’t know the difference between drug use and drug abuse; he’s still blissfully unworried about drug-related violence here or in Mexico or the contribution of our insistence on spraying poppy crops to the al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan; he still doesn’t think HIV is worth a mention; and of course more than a million drug arrests per year and half a million drug offenders in prison are just peachy-keen, as long as fewer kids are smoking pot or trying MDMA or LSD. Walters thinks methamphetamine use has “collapsed.” With unerring accuracy, he praises futile and trivial anti-drug efforts while ignoring the genuine progress being made in breaking up street drug markets and forcing probationers to quit.
And of course Walters cites the alcohol problem as a reason not to change policies on any of the currently illicit drugs without ever hinting that there are simple policy changes that could actually do some thing about alcohol, which accounts for more than 80% of the victims of substance abuse disorders: proof positive that he’s more interested in fighting the culture wars than in reducing the prevalence of substance abuse.
I only wish I thought that the editors of the Wall Street Journal had deliberately chosen these two exercises in unreality to illustrate how completely what passes for the drug policy debate in political and journalistic circles is stuck on stupid.