Why did I put on a DEA cap to address the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy?

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.

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:

7 thoughts on “Backstory”

  1. You can’t end such a great essay with that stunning last sentence and not include a photo. 🙁

  2. What Burke said:

    “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”

  3. @Mark.
    This was the best, most coherent expression of your position and contributions to this devastating problem. I would hope that I would be able to count myself among your allies.

  4. “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?”

    This is what frustrates me about current politics–we just do not strive to maintain your wholly laudable attitude.

  5. I usually don’t feel personal animosity towards folks like Mr. Bergman. But I don’t kid myself either. While he may be personable and a decent human being, the average rank and file…well, let’s just say they’re not polite people. I wish it was otherwise, but one has to be data-driven to avoid being sentimental here about what goes on in the boardroom versus what we know happens on the street.

    The DEA is, of course, bound by the law. But as in most bureaucracies, there is tremendous discretion in the details and practices of implementation and enforcement. When law enforcement professionals respect me, I’m happy to acknowledge it, as I did in a recent comment about the Seattle acting police chief reaching out to those who are the same folks they were a few months back, but who are now legal. I’m on speaking terms with our local chief here. I do not detest the police. I have relatives who either are or were police.

    On the other hand, the police have chosen to explicitly embrace a peculiarly political position in relishing harsh enforcement of drug laws. The DEA owes it’s very existence as an organization to Nixon’s launch of the “drug war” and making marijuana Schedule I. That’s a big reason why the facts about marijuana don’t matter much to them. They’re clinging to the very idea of their existence under fire. They’re the ones that need to come to terms with the accident of their birth. We can’t choose who our parents are, but we can choose to be what we are. The DEA has given me little faith they have any interest in a flexible policy approach, even when their current inflexible approach is a clear and utter failure and, worse, is even more abysmal policy in a diverse democracy.

    Once Bergman’s done schmoozing you up, don’t accept the offer to “Let’s go for a ride and check out the latest off the boat” is all I can say.

    But I never turn down the opportunity for some opposition research, either. Just remember they’re already doing that with you. And, no, you’re not paranoid when they’re really after you. That’s the way I see it.

  6. …and with this post, Professor, my burden made lighter.

    how wondrous this world would be if only all sought to improve our knowledge of it, free from foolish pride, in defiance of division, with genuine humility and unquenchable thirst for the one real prize alone – truth itself. …Univit ad Veritas

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