Drug policy fallacies and the violence in Mexico

The American Interest has my essay up on its website.

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

24 thoughts on “Drug policy fallacies and the violence in Mexico”

  1. Mark:

    Thanks for the article! Quick contrarian rebuttal: If the US legalized all of those drugs now being dealt by the DTOs, that action would not cut-down masively on the homoicides in Mexico? Or do you think legalized cocaine would result in as much cost or more cost as the insanely-high homicide rate in Mexico currently?

    I agree your approach should be tried first, but I think with the current near failded-state of Mexico, and the violence it has ensued, gives more credence to the legalization camp, even on a cost-benefit analysis…


  2. Even after all that staff work, the strategy would remain a difficult, high-risk venture. But it’s possible to imagine that it would work, and work relatively quickly, to reduce the homicide rate in Mexico. If anyone else has a proposal that can reasonably make the same claim, I’d like to hear it.

    Of course you have heard one such proposal that has the significant advantages of being much easier and less risky to implement and having been tried and found effective in drastically reducing violence associated with trafficking in prohibited intoxicants, to the point that you’re apparently so tired of hearing it that you would prefer to leave it out of the discussion entirely, so I won’t speak it’s name here.

    Enforcement efforts should be designed to influence the way the drug business is carried out rather than attempt, futilely, to shrink the volume of the trade.

    That’s what I’m talking about. Now what’s the best way we know to do that?

  3. Interesting and enjoyable article. I’ve seen you describe the following as a myth several times now:

    “That drug abuse (and the more severe diagnosis of drug dependency) is typically a “chronic, relapsing brain disease.”

    That this should be a myth seems eminently sensible to me, but I was wondering if there is a review article or chapter you would recommend that goes over the evidence for and against this type of idea?

    1. See Gene Heyman’s Addiction: A Disorder of Choice. Caulkins, Hawken and I make the argument less formally in Drugs and Drug Policy.

  4. Yes, you could legalize cocaine. That would reduce drug-dealing violene in Mexico. But there’s no plausible argument that it wouldn’t massively increase cocaine abuse, in both countries. Take your choice. But don’t pretend that legalization is a freebie. It ain’t.

    1. But the end of Prohibition wound up with alcohol consumption going up, but hard liquor consumption trending down. (Concentrated forms of drugs are favored by prohibitions to aid in circumventing enforcement.) If we replaced the cocaine equivalent of moonshine with the cocaine equivalent of wine coolers, (Genuinely original recipe Coke?) wouldn’t that be an improvement? Do we really have to pretend that, were the war on drugs ended, the kinds of drugs people would consume, and the way they’d consume them, would remain unchanged? That’s not reality based.

      There are no freebies. But I don’t want to live in a police state, or fund international terrorism. If the cost of that is some people doing things Mark Kleiman wouldn’t, so be it. Unlike some people, the prospect of lots of people doing things Mark Kleiman wouldn’t leaves me largely unmoved, so long as it gets rid of no-knock searches, Fast and Furious, the drug war exception, and so on.

      Ameliorating harm to people who chose to do stupid things like use drugs is a nice concept. But far more important, I think, is ameliorating harm to the majority who don’t do stupid things. That’s where the war on drugs is an abysmal failure, to put it mildly.

      1. Brett: Check out the statistics on alcohol-fueled violence (most of it beer). Then Google “violence cocaethylene.” Then let’s talk about the fantasy idea that drug abuse harms only drug abusers. And do me a favor and stop attributing to me false beliefs I don’t hold; I have no particular preferences about other people’s drug use, unless they harm other people or harm themselves (a category which I know you don’t recognize, but when 90% of cigarette smokers say they wish they’d never started, I accept that as data).

        1. Mark: In your cost-benefit analysis, how much would cocaine use have to increase in order to off-set the benefits of a legally regulated market alternstive to prohibition?

    2. I think it’s a great article, and your suggestions are well worth trying. I really hope our representatives are listening. (That was a depressing sentence to write. But isn’t there someone who says it’s a sin to despair?)

      At the same time, I also tend to be tempted by legalization, and I wonder if there’s any guess that could be made as to how much it might decrease violence in Mexico. As does Brett, I too prioritize lowering violence on bystanders, though I’d rather that no one got hurt of course.

      And what if we did HOPE at the same time? I mean I know it’s a fantasy to think US policy could ever be that smart, that quickly, but just supposing. How much would HOPE cut down on the harm from legalization’s increased usage? Or is this too pie in the sky?

  5. From the article: It is claimed—with how much accuracy I don’t know—that U.S. authorities can trace the connection between specific Mexican DTOs and the major middlemen and retail distribution networks in the United States that buy their drugs. and imagine that the full weight of U.S. drug law enforcement, which keeps half a million dealers in prison at any one time, landed just on the middlemen and distribution networks

    a)I thought you were sufficiently plugged in into the US drug policy apparatus that you could get a decent idea of whether the claim was (nearly) true or not. Is that not true? BTW, who/what have made the claim?

    b)if the US does have the ability to effectively target US drug trade actors one-by-one such that the targeted actor is rendered out of play, then why isn’t it already being done?

    1. The answer to b) is that we live in a political environment that demands targeting all drug trade actors without regard to any consideration as to which is worst. The firestorm that would erupt if the administration were to announce that it was going to stop enforcement against certain actors in order to concentrate on those that it considers more problematic would be overwhelming.\

      There are two things that completely dominate the public’s perception of the War on Drugs:

      1) the consumption of illegal drugs is a bigger moral flaw than the things required to engage in the drug trade, and
      2) a complete lack of understanding about trade-offs, both in terms of what we have to give up to prosecute the War on Drugs as we do now and the ability to draw distinctions between the relative dangers of different drugs and the relative dangers of different drug traders.

      The American public doesn’t really consider marijuana usage to be any less wrong than cocaine usage, different usage rates notwithstanding. Both are considered to be moral rather than practical problems and as such the actual consequences aren’t really the source of the objections.

      1. The firestorm that would erupt if the administration were to announce that it was going to stop enforcement against certain actors in order to concentrate on those that it considers more problematic would be overwhelming.

        Who said anything about making any announcements? I’m examining Mark’s relayed claim about the ability to quash “major middlemen”, a job primarily for the DEA and FBI, not street corner police. I’m sure these agencies prioritize their focus and resources, as it is, without publicly highlighting said imbalance of focus. The announcement part comes if Mark’s plan is adopted, but Mark is asserting the ability seemingly exists now. I am wondering if it does.

        1. The entire point of the policy is deterrence. In order for it to have a deterrent effect, it has to be understood by the drug gangs that the way to stay out of the crosshairs is to reduce the violence. How do you plan for this to be known by the gangs without any sort of publicity?

          1. Mark’s plan is targeted towards violence in Mexico, not the US. He proposes modulating the behavior of Mexican actors by affecting their US trade comrades, by putting them out of business, one at a time. The viability of this plan relies on an assumed enforcement efficacy of the US drug police. I am wondering about that, not the execution of the proposed plan.

          2. That’s fine and dandy, but you wanted to know why nothing like it has been done. I told you that. Then you started bringing up things that are entirely irrelevant to the plan as it has been laid out. Absent the plan, which requires publicity, there’s no particular reason to try the parts of it.

            Worrying about whether the plan is feasible is fine, but the specific objection you made is irrelevant.

          3. Absent the plan, which requires publicity, there’s no particular reason to try the parts of it.

            There is this endeavour known as the War on Drugs in the US; going on a quite a few decades now. One if its major prongs has been Supply Reduction. If the US can reliably take out the major suppliers albeit one-by-one then no specific rationale is needed under the WoD effort to indeed do so. Mark’s plan relies on this possibility in order to work.

  6. Yes, you could legalize cocaine. That would reduce drug-dealing violene in Mexico. But there’s no plausible argument that it wouldn’t massively increase cocaine abuse, in both countries. Take your choice. But don’t pretend that legalization is a freebie. It ain’t.

    I don’t know anyone who thinks legalization is a free lunch. You are correct in saying that it trades one problem for another. We did that with alcohol. I don’t know anyone who would prefer to trade that one back. I think the consensus is that we have the second problem in either case, perhaps to different degrees (depending on the prohibited intoxicant), and the first problem does far more damage to society than it prevents. There ain’t no free lunch, and prohibition certainly isn’t free either.

    As to cocaine specifically, I sympathize with your fears. I lost my first wife to cocaine addiction during the ’80’s epidemic you mention in the essay (which is why I was so hard on Jonathan regarding his insensitive comments about Whitney Houston’s passing). She died way too young, in her twenties. I’ve seen, up close and personal, how devastating cocaine addiction can be. I never cared for cocaine before that and I loathe it now, but I still think prohibition is a mistake. The ’80’s epidemic of “massively increase[d] cocaine abuse” happened despite prohibition, which did little to prevent, mitigate, control, reduce, or end it. And let’s not forget that it wasn’t just an epidemic of massive abuse, but of massive violence as well. What ended the ’80’s epidemic was the collective realization of the horrible effects of addiction — society learned from the mistakes. Cocaine is still easily and relatively cheaply acquired by those who want it despite prohibition, but we are no longer seeing abuse on such a massive scale, or anywhere near it. Our experience is that cultural factors, to a far greater degree than legal status, drives cocaine abuse. There’s your argument, you can decide to what degree you think it is “plausible”, but I would say that our collective first-hand experience carries a fair amount of plausibility.

    1. “And let’s not forget that it wasn’t just an epidemic of massive abuse, but of massive violence as well. What ended the ’80′s epidemic was the collective realization of the horrible effects of addiction — society learned from the mistakes. ”

      I had the impression that what changed is that either so many people died during the crack epidemic that crack (or cocaine) went out of style, or that the bulk of the users actually died or went to federal prison. Which is true? Is that what you meant by saying “society learned?”

      Society seems to learn so infrequently that I just wanted to make sure I understood you.

      1. My impression, having lived through it, was that people got tired of all the problems associated with cocaine abuse and addiction. Of those in my circle of acquaintances who abused it, a couple died but most quit using cocaine, some through rehab, some on their own. I don’t know anyone who went to prison for it. All anecdotal and therefore not data, of course. I do remember a huge amount of public pressure to get people in rehab and off cocaine. I don’t recall a lot of enforcement success. I could be wrong.

        Perhaps Mark has some factual data he would like to share on the subject?

      2. To further clarify my response, I would say that your first impression is closer to how it went down.

        Cocaine use was glamorized during the ’80’s. It was the age of Disco, when you wore your little coke spoon on a necklace to advertise the promise of a “good time” to potential one-night-stand mates, and shared “toots” in the bathroom. The culture was saying it was OK and fun to use cocaine, with little ill consequence. This cultural attitude perhaps hit it’s apex in the early 1990’s when DC mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack and went to jail, then was re-elected mayor after he got out.

        Cocaine use in all it’s forms “went out of style” (relatively speaking), but not just from overdose fatalities or imprisonment, which happen to a low percentage of abusers, but mostly from all the other problems associated with addiction, which happen to a far greater percentage. Cocaine, and especially crack, is highly addictive. There is a very pleasant, euphoric high that doesn’t last very long. These effects are magnified with crack — the high is more intense and shorter-lived. Once you “come down”, you are left with an intense craving to get back up again, which lasts much longer than the high does. Think hunger, squared. This insidious addictive quality leads addicts to do pretty much anything to stay high as much as possible. Prostitution and theft are extremely common. Obviously, the behavior of addicts has a tendency to de-glamorize cocaine use. The cultural attitude went from “this is fun, safe, and cool” to “this is dangerous, addictive, and uncool”, as the image of the cocaine user went from Disco to crack-whore. This is what I meant by “society learned”. I agree with you about the rarity, and it should be noted that society has yet to learn from all of the ill effects and futility of drug prohibition, though it seems to be slowly catching on, at least with respect to far less dangerous drugs like marijuana.

        Not surprisingly, the good Professor Kleiman seems uninterested in doing my homework for me. I don’t know where to look to find specific data regarding historical cocaine use, enforcement efforts, drug education, and cultural patterns, and didn’t have much luck finding hard numbers that would prove or disprove my contention that cultural attitudes, much more than legal status and enforcement, drives cocaine abuse (and other drugs as well). I’ll stand by my experience until confronted with data that proves otherwise. Wikipedia has a couple of interesting articles on the War on Drugs and the crack epidemic that are worth mentioning. It’s interesting to note that our international drug interdiction efforts were compromised for political purposes during the Contra affair, contributing to the crack epidemic.

        1. Thanks for your answer. I guess I missed out on most of that. I’m in one of the generations that missed out on all the fun. I know it came at a price, anyway. I’m not a declinist, but one thing that really bothers me about the US these days is the indifference to the externalized costs of our lifestyles. I suppose that’s not new though — it’s just that I’m noticing.

          1. Heh, well looking back it wasn’t as much fun as it might sound. Listen to some disco music for a half hour straight, and you might get the impression one would need to be high on something to appreciate it. (“Disco’s not dead — it’s always smelled like that!”)

            I believe that it is probably the “generations that missed all the fun” that Mark is rightly concerned about in his opposition to regulated legalization. It would be very difficult to argue that legalization wouldn’t have an undesired effect on cultural attitudes toward drugs, and people who haven’t experienced the consequences of drug abuse would be very vulnerable to any cultural message that drug use has been legitimized. There are no easy answers. Alcohol re-legalization didn’t solve our alcohol-related problems — far from it. My opposition to prohibition stems from the observation that it has little effect on drug abuse, while leaving a vacuum for the violent, unregulated black market to fill. The “cure” is ineffective, and the side-effects are as bad as the “disease”, or worse. That’s also why I reject decriminalization, because it leaves the black market intact. Mark may be correct, at least to a point, in arguing that “there’s no plausible argument that it wouldn’t massively increase cocaine abuse”, but his argument fails on the same point, as our experience shows that there’s no plausible argument that prohibition has the power to prevent massive increases in drug abuse. Drug abuse is rampant in our prisons, how can it be controlled through enforcement in our “free” society?

            We know better ways to deal with the issue. I refer you to the section titled “Efficiency” in the War on Drugs Wikipedia article: The Rand Drug Policy Research Center study concluded that $3 billion should be switched from federal and local law enforcement to treatment. The report said that treatment is the cheapest way to cut drug use, stating that drug treatment is twenty-three times more effective than the supply-side “war on drugs”. Study after study have concluded that education and treatment are far more effective than prohibition and enforcement. I’m all for whatever works.

  7. You know what? I have to say it again. Great article. It is so nice to see someone doing work on something that actually matters. Such a refreshing change from our election year “public discourse.”

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