Did he also say that the sky was blue?

A Border Patrol agent tells a colleague that drug legalization would reduce violence in Mexico. That’s obviously true. But apparently the agent got fired for it. If that’s what really happened, it’s an outrage.

According to this complaint, a Border Patrol agent was fired for saying to a colleague in a private conversation that “the legalization of drugs would end the drug war and related violence in Mexico.” This along with his expression of pride in his Mexican heritage, was taken to be “contrary … to patriotism, dedication, and esprit de corps” and therefore grounds for termination.

All I can say is, “Huh?”

If selling cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine were made legal, there would be no illegal business in smuggling them into the United States from Mexico. If that illegal business were to disappear, the level of violence in Mexico would fall. So much is elementary and not subject to dispute by any rational person.

Whether that’s the best way of dealing with the problem is another question. Just as it’s obvious that legalization would end the Mexican drug wars, it’s obvious that lower prices and the other effects of legalization would increase the use, and abuse, of those drugs. How much is open to question, and would depend on the details of the post-legalization control regime, but everything we know suggests that the answer is “A lot.”

So you might reasonably decide that the (unknown) damage from legalization was large enough that we should instead accept the (huge, but known) damage from criminalization. Or you might reasonably decide the opposite. Or – my preferred position – you might try to change current enforcement (and other) policies in order to reduce the damage done by the illicit markets.

The organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has, as its title suggests, chosen the legalization option. I think the organization’s analysis of the problem is intolerably shallow, a mere mirror-image of the usual Drug Warrior rant. But the notion of firing someone for saying what is obviously true is pretty damned offensive. Perhaps there’s more to the story than this. But if I were Janet Napolitano, I’d have someone on top of the situation, pronto.

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

16 thoughts on “Did he also say that the sky was blue?”

  1. As a hypothetical, imagine if, say, Canada had a policy that caused massive bloodshed in the US, encouraged law enforcement and military corruption, and led to political instability.

    Under just-war theory, would that be a cause of action?

  2. I'm kind of puzzled why you think that legalization would mean a lot of increased use. Particularly if a level of discouragement somewhat similar to what is done now for cigarets, I'm not convinced that use would rise much. And I'm with Jamie – what we are doing to Mexico and Colombia is vile.

  3. dave, more than 20% of Americans smoke cigarettes (presumably a higher percentage have smoked or will smoke them), averaging about 6,000 cigarettes a year. The numbers are much higher elsewhere. Can you really argue that there isn't a large number of people people already inclined to use drugs either occasionally or habitually who would use more if it were safer and cheaper? What about people – like, say, me – who, starting from a position of near-total inexperience, would rather like to indulge but are too cowardly and too law-abiding to do so under current circumstances? (Although as a Californian, I could easily indulge quasi-legally at the price of my self-respect, a price I will not pay).

    It seems to me that claiming that legalization wouldn't lead to a big increase in use is the puzzling position. Now, without the crime and all it entails, and with addicts and habitual users paying lower prices, the social cost might well go way, way down even though far more drugs would be consumed. But do you really think far more drug consumption wouldn't be involved?

  4. I frankly don't care whether legalization leads to an increase in use. It would lead to the harm from drugs being suffered primarily by users, who have, in some sense, chosen that harm, while it would radically reduce the harm caused by the war on drugs and the crime it generates to non-users, who can't be said to have chosen to be harmed. And I don't care, nearly as much, about harm to people who've chosen to be harmed, as I do about harm to people who didn't chose to be harmed.

    And the consequences to this gent are hardly surprising. The stupider a policy is, the more vigorously you have to clamp down on people who want to talk about how stupid it is. And the war on drugs is really, really stupid. It's stupid on a "requires exponential notation" level. It makes Prohibition, which was called off after just a few years, look clever by comparison. It demands a correspondingly extreme crack down on anybody who'd tell the truth about it.

  5. Legalization leading to greater drug use is a GOOD thing. Most people who do drugs get a really good deal on the benefit/harm ratio.

  6. I agree about the idiocy of firing the BP agent. But I wonder about Mark's thinking on drug abuse increasing with legalization. One aspect that deserves consideration is the idea, which I associate with Norman Zinberg, that in the absence of legal punishments, social groups develop ways to use psychoactive drugs that mitigate potential harms. When, for example, intergenerational discussion of how and how not to do it is stifled by social stigma and the threat of legal repercussions, drug use may be more extreme and less safe.

  7. "…but everything we know suggests that the answer is “A lot.”"

    This is simply a facile assertion. There are many factors that influence the incidence of drug use. Given a relatively stable and not even necessarily prosperous country with an adequate social safety net, I would not expect usage to the point of addiction to move much at all with legalization. The ratio of addictive personalities to population appears to be somewhat fixed. Treating addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal one could even lower this percentage.

    As for incidental use, It, too, could fall. Portugal has had surprising success with its legalization program. The incidence of marijuana use in the Netherlands is much lower than in the U.S. Drug use is much lower among Mexicans than in the U.S., but drug use in Afghanistan is skyrocketing. Presumably drugs are easy to obtain in both nations.

  8. bobbyp, I assume you were here for the post about a week ago about Portugal? Because it doesn't have a "legalization program". Possession and use were decriminalized, but dealing wasn't. You may well be correct in what you say about human nature and the effects of legalization – but please, don't cite Portugal, or at least be careful how you do so.

  9. Johnny One-Note here. I want to associate myself with Brett Bellmore, and also to tell (again, again) my high school story: it was loads easier to get illegal drugs than alcohol. Alcohol was being sold by people with licenses from the State of California, and which they really didn't want to lose or have suspended for selling to high school kids. This was not a problem for sellers of drugs. If you couple this with at least a plausibility that kids in high school are more experimental than they will be later, you have a big path into drug use which is lessened with legalization. That assumes that you won't have a parallel distribution network aimed solely at high school kids and staffed by today's narcoterrorists, but I don't think hs kids have enough money to support something like that.

  10. a) It's far from established that liberalizing drug laws would result in a significant increase in harmful drug use. On the margins, curious people might experiment when they otherwise wouldn't have. But people who actively seek drugs — including both addicts and enthusiastic functioning recreational users — can already find them very, very easily. The law impacts the margins, but the fundamental question is one of personal preference when it comes to drug use.

    b) A measurable uptick in drug use isn't an intrinsically bad thing — many people benefit from recreational drug use without any substantial drawbacks. What we should be worried about is problematic abuse, not simple recreation. Claiming that our Drug War is a better way to address problem users than could be accomplished in a legalized framework is absurd. Those of us who seek radical legalization are not saying that "drug use never hurts anyone", we're saying that criminalization is perhaps the worst way to protect our society from the harms that drug use does cause. And, of course, it creates its own huge set of problems apart from drug use.

  11. the impact of legalisation on use does ofcourse depend on the control regime that is adopted to replace it. Key amongst the consideration will be the price controls (possible under a regulated system – but not under porhibition) and controls on advertsising, marketing and promotion (This is all explored in Transform's 'bluperint for regulation' downloadable here: http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blueprint%20download.htm ). the extent of the deterrent effect relating to enforcement against users is not well established but assumed to be marginal – and the impact of price changes is also hard to make generalisations about as it will change between drugs, populations and different types of users. The issue of displacement between drugs also complicates the issue of the impacts of price and other controls.

    One issue Mark doesnt mention is the impact of wider policy on levels of use, and more pertinently misuse and/or total use related harm. It is quite possible that savings accrued from reigning back enforcement spending could be reinvested in the sort of education, prevention, harm reduction and treatment programs that can be effective at reducing use/misuse/harm (at least when done properly). There is also the issue of addressing some of the wider socio-economic problems that are key drivers of problematic use: poverty, inequality, poor parenting/schooling, problems in the mental health and care systems and so on.

    It is obviously very hard to seperate out the multiple influences on levels of drug use and harms – but legal status doesnt seem to be the key one, and I suspect that you are overstating the negative impact of legalisation on use/harm – at least if such a move was managed responsibly and the regulatory frameworks adopted (a la Blueprint perhaps) were based on sound public health principles, rather than the commercial forces that shaped tobacco and alcohol policy in the past.

  12. “The terms Legalization and Prohibition are sometimes used as ways to create 'straw men' arguments, by essentially claiming that your opponents are for something else entirely." — Pete Guither of the DrugWarRant http://www.drugwarrant.com/

    Here are the definitions :

    1) Legalization: A status where responsible adults may legally acquire, possess, and use a particular drug, although there may be restrictions on time, place and manner. Legal does not mean unregulated. In fact, when it comes to drugs, most supporters of legalization call for some regulation and control.

    Consider gasoline. It is an extremely dangerous substance — it can cause severe health problems or death if inhaled, can be fashioned into an explosive and can cause damaging fires. It is a legal substance (responsible adults may acquire, possess, and use it), but it is subject to control and regulation. It can only be sold by licensed dealers, and there are regulations as to how it may be used, in what kind of containers it may be stored, and so forth.

    Legalization of drugs is fully compatible with regulatory efforts restricting access to children, forbidding use while driving or while working in safety-sensitive jobs, banning use in certain locations or situations, controlling the means for manufacture and distribution (including taxation and labeling), and creating standards for purity and potency.

    2) Criminalization: A status where the manufacture, distribution, and/or possession of a particular drug is likely to result in criminal penalties if caught (ie, felony or misdemeanor charges, jail, fines, probation, criminal record), regardless of time, place, or manner.

    3) Prohibition: Criminalization as public policy.

    Decriminalization: American Heritage dictionary defines it as “to reduce or abolish criminal penalties for.” Theoretically, decriminalization could mean legalization (and is preferred by some drug policy reformers), except for the “reduce” option. Decriminalization is sometimes used to describe contradictory legal situations where marijuana, for example, is legal to possess and use, but not to acquire — this is a partial legalization that leaves intact certain aspects of prohibition’s dangerous side-effects.

    The default status of any substance is legal.

    Prohibition is not regulation, not even in the slightest.

    Who, now, controls the purity? : The cartels and the street punks

    Who sets the age limits? : The cartels and the street punks

    Who decides the opening hours? : The cartels and the street punks

    Who settles the trade disputes? : The cartels and the street punks

    And who gets to keep all of the profits? : The cartels and the street punks

    There’s one fact that’s chiseled in the concrete where some of the victims of this moronathon are hidden. -Prohibition is not regulation; it’s a hideous nightmare.

    What we, as a society, now successfully do with alcohol and tobacco is known as legalized regulation. There is no other term for it.

    What the Swiss now successfully do with heroin is also legalized regulation. Albeit with far tighter controls than for alcohol or tobacco.

    And if it’s education you want then maybe we should start demanding that The National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, stop their policy of lying to us about the dangers of drugs (particularly marijuana).

    "And here we come to the vital distinction between the advocacy of temperance and the advocacy of prohibition. Temperance and self-control are convertible terms. Prohibition, or that which it implies, is the direct negation of the term self-control. In order to save the small percentage of men who are too weak to resist their animal desires, it aims to put chains on every man, the weak and the strong alike. And if this is proper in one respect, why not in all respects? Yet, what would one think of a proposition to keep all men locked up because a certain number have a propensity to steal?”

    – Felix Mendelsohn, 1915

    “I am against Prohibition because it has set the cause of temperance back twenty years; because it has substituted an ineffective campaign of force for an effective campaign of education; because it has replaced comparatively uninjurious light wines and beers with the worst kind of hard liquor and bad liquor; because it has increased drinking not only among men but has extended drinking to women and even children.”

    – William Randolph Hearst,

    initially a supporter of Prohibition,

    explaining his change of mind in 1929.

    From “Drink: A Social History of America”

    by Andrew Barr (1999), p.239

  13. '…but everything we know suggests that the answer is “A lot.”'

    Mark, as you know, California has allowed retail pot dispensaries to operate since 2004. Anyone willing to pay $50 for a medical marijuana recommendation can legally purchase and use marijuana. If your assumption is correct, there should be evidence of a massive increase in marijuana use over the last six years.

    According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.71% of Californians reported past month use of marijuana in 2004 (see data table at http://oas.samhsa.gov/2k4State/appB.htm). By 2008, this figure had dropped slightly, to 6.67% (http://oas.samhsa.gov/2k8State/AppB.htm).

    Given that California has legalized marijuana in everything but name, why hasn't use increased "A lot?"

    Likewise, after 34 years of legal marijuana sales in the Netherlands, Dutch usage rates are far lower than our own and roughly in line with the EU average, although marijuana remains prohibited in other member states.

    Why aren't rates of marijuana use lower in the countries which prohibit marijuana use?

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