Diplomatic language

Did the Asst. Secretary of State for drugs just give cannabis legalization a nod-and-wink? Looks that way.

William Brownfield is a highly skilled diplomat who now serves as the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement: i.e., as the State Department’s chief drug warrior. In advance of the release this Friday of the OAS report on alternative drug strategies for the hemisphere, Brownfield gave an interview to El Tiempo of Bogotá. Asked about legalization in general, he denounced the legalization of “cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, synthetic drugs” as a red line no country wants to cross.”

Note what’s missing from that list? If this were a politician I might imagine mere oversight, but Brownfield didn’t get where he is by making rookie mistakes.

It’s possible that the smart drug warriors have begun to decide that the Battle of Cannabis is lost, and are attempting to fall back to a more defensible position.

In the words of our esteemed Vice President, this is a BFD.

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

20 thoughts on “Diplomatic language”

  1. Hmmm, well, that’s confusing. I believe from your posts that you hold the same view vis a vis those listed substances, yet your post is written as if the set of smart drug warriors does not include yourself.

    1. I try to be as smart as I can. I’m not a “drug warrior” in the sense that I regard drug policy as a set of practical efforts to deal with the fact that some users of some drugs suffer and do harm as a result of drug use that has escaped their normal self-command, rather than as a crusade against a moral evil.

      1. I grant you that some abuse takes place and may lead to some kind of harm, but the danger in trying to legislate against what most of us understand as a small percentage of a users can lead to unnecessary overpollicing. I still do not understand what your position is regarding restrictions on marijuana use and distribution. Granted that some controls are necessary, but what do they look like?

  2. Given that any rational analysis shows that the war on pot is, basically, lost, at least in the court of public opinion, that is smart I do think there is simply too much money to be made in the grinding mill of change, so it will take a while yet. (C.f. the anti-gay-marriage types – every loss is an opportunity to fund raise).

    Actual question, with a bit of set up. So, if pot goes legal in a way similar to alcohol, that cuts the legs from under a fair portion of income for law enforcement. If automated cars actually end up working through the regulatory system, they will obey traffic laws by algorithm, thereby depriving LE of another significant source of funding. What happens with all the cops who are no longer needed to generate revenue to pay themselves? There have been systemic shocks to law enforcement in other countries, although not like these things. I wonder how it sorts out .

    1. American cops aren’t paid by the arrest. There’s lots of law enforcement work to do.

      1. Not the cops on the beat, but the chiefs certainly do love asset forfeiture. If they have to go begging to the county commission for funds, like they were some librarian or something, it’ll be a severe blow to their pride.

        If the IACOP comes out against gun control legislation, we’ll know Jamie was right.

        1. Additionally, it’s my understanding that federal law enforcement grants like the Byrne grants have their accountability based on numbers of arrests (not quality of arrests) providing incentive tied to income. Now maybe in a post-marijuana-prohibition wolrd, similar grants could be given for such things as investigating burglary or rape, but right now, I think it’s safe to say that many in law enforcement feel that changes in laws affecting their revenue streams are a potential attack on their employment (and overtime opportunities).

        2. Joe,
          It was my understanding that the operating budget is paid by taxes in almost all police departments. Forfeiture buys the toys, such as the SWAT equipment. But this doesn’t affect your or Jamie’s main point.

    2. Jamie:

      Good thoughts above, especially regarding traffic laws, or the lack thereof needed under automated driving and its impact on law enforcement.

      You could redirect a lot of law enforcement to combating domestic violence, mandated drug compliance a la Mark’s model of mandated abstinence for serious drugs, and fighting against the physical violence from physical alcohol.

      Right now, law enforcement is heavily invested in traffic enforcement, so it will be interesting to see if there is still a lot for them to do.


  3. Unlike Mark, I’m not familiar with the context, but it sounds just like a recognition of reality. The question asked about decriminalization, not legalization. Given that some countries have already decriminalized cannibis, it would seem ignorant to say that no country would do it.

    Here’s the full question and answer, translated by Google:

    Q: But what if the approach is to decriminalize the use or production of certain substances, which is different to legalize?
    A: If you mean decriminalize coca, heroin, methamphetamine, synthetic drugs, are allowed without any result then insist on a very serious study before making such a determination. The point of this exercise (OAS) is to recognize that there are different drugs, different countries, different cultures, but at the end of the day there is a red line that no country wants to cross and so do not think the discussion we will have in a weeks will be hostile or controversial.

  4. I can see viewing Brownfield’s remarks as a concession to not being pinned down on the issue of marijuana under rapidly changing circumstances. That’s not really a concession on what we all know will be the endgame, legalization of marijuana, more of an evasion — which is really nothing new.

    I’d argue that the remarks were more due to diplomatic maneuvering on the issue of cannabis in advance of the OAS report’s release. The US position on marijuana makes it a clear outlier in the OAS. That’s not so much the case for hard drugs, where there is far less support for legalization. Brownfield is just chipping away at the war he thinks he can still win, while avoiding what is an obviously lost position on marijuana.

    There is a rational argument to be made that legalization of marijuana would allow the available law enforcement resources and political capital be focused on hard drugs. Given that the US is losing both the war on marijuana and the war on drugs, in general, it does make a certain kind of sense for this to be an endgame the drug warriors would find acceptable.

    Unfortunately, this is the battle that should have been fought in the 1970s, when most drug imports were marijuana and when cocaine was just beginning it meteoric rise as the drug dealer’s favorite profit center. Personally, I think a “drug war II” that shifts away from marijuana and exclusively onto cocaine, heroin, meth, etc will fail just as surely as the present all in version. But taking marijuana and legalizing it will help limit the main damage caused by marijuana prohibition — putting blackmarket access to a range of illegal drugs on virtually every street corner in the US.

    1. If I could go back in time, I’d consider rejecting my non-violent ways to choke the everliving shizzle out of the idiot at NORML who decided what marijuana reform needed was to make the president’s drug adviser known to be snorting coke.

      Between the suffering caused by that spike in what looked at the time like a clear road to legalization, and the suffering to be caused when marijuana legalization spills over onto, you know, drugs, that SOB has a lot to answer for.

      1. Yeah, that was a dumb move.

        But that was hardly the only one. Lots of folks share responsibility for where we are now. Some of them on “our” side, but most just the hare-brained who rule us as if they can make marijuana disappear. That has a far greater effect in the long run than someone’s coke habit or tendency to “tell all” just because it paints them as important.

  5. Brownfield’s red line for the US government (question 2) is legalization of cocaine or heroin. He said (question 3) that decriminalisation of these plus meth and synthetic drugs would require much more study, but he did not rule it out, covering his rear by reference to an undefined red line. This is surprising, and goes much further than the silence over cannabis. What you hear is a giant logjam slowly breaking.

    1. I’m ever the optimist, but folks thought the same thing when Gil Kerlikowski declared the “drug war” over. Turns out he was just rebranding it into something more palatable, but with no effective change in practice. I’ll believe it’s not bait-and-switch on these policies when someone in the Obama administration actually takes a step to change things, rather than apparently planning on just talking about change for 8 years straight.

      1. Same thing happened with Lee Brown, the first Drug Czar to serve under Bill Clinton.

        We went to Congress and articulated some sort of a harm-reduction approach to drug policy. A good policy, he would say, would focus on the twenty percent of drug users who were problem users, not the other eighty percent.

  6. Oh goodie! The war on cannabis is over! Tell it to Daisy Bram, a young mother who has been estranged from her three young boys, two of whom were almost literally ripped from her breast as she nursed.

    No, Professor Kleiman, the War on Cannabis is not over. And it won’t be until the brownshirts are restrained from their state-sanctioned terrorism.

  7. Some years ago (I think it was 1988) Ted Koppel did a special three-hour prime-time national town meeting on the topic of drug legalization. That was back when drug legalization (at least for drugs other than marijuana) was kind of a taboo topic in the news media.

    (I’m doing this from memory, so it’s possible I’m getting some of the details wrong, but this is what I seem to remember.)

    On the “pro-legaiization” side included (among others) William Buckley, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, and the guy who now heads up the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann.

    At one point, Nadelmann gave a long diatribe about legalizing pot, noting the expenses incurred, the relative innocuousness of the substance, as well as its widespread use and the general ineffectiveness of the laws at deterring use.

    One of the folks on the “con” side (I think it was Charles Rangel, maybe) objected, saying, “Why are you talking about pot? What don’t you talk about heroin or cocaine?”

    Koppel then asked Rangel, and everybody else on the con side, “Is there anybody on your side of the table you thinks we should legalize marijuana?” And none of them did.

    That was a quarter of a century ago, and even back then the drug warriors, though they opposed pot legalization, saw it as something different from the “hard” drugs.

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