End of the Drug War?


William Burton posts a moving account of his father’s struggle with alcohol, and concludes that, as awful as alcoholism was for his father and the family, it would have been much worse had alcohol been illegal and expensive. From this no doubt correct premise, Burton draws the (I think) invalid inference that the drug laws should be repealed. “It’s time to treat drug abuse like what it is, a personal and family tragedy that isn’t a criminal justice issue.”

The missing premise in that inference is that everyone who would be addicted to (e.g.) cocaine, if cocaine were legally available, is addicted (to cocaine or something else) now. But that seems hardly plausible. The United States has perhaps two million heavy cocaine users, and perhaps 15 million people with drinking problems. There’s no reason to think that alcohol is either more fun than cocaine or more addictive. That suggests to me that making a drug legally available, or at least making it commercially available, is a population-level risk factor for addiction.

The task of reducing the damage done by our current drug laws and related policies requires detailed analysis on a drug-by-drug, policy-by-policy basis. The slogan “End the drug war” is no more likely to be a useful guide to action than the slogan “A drug-free society.”

Here’s a brief general statement of principles that might guide more sensible drug policies.


William Burton provides a lengthy, thoughtful response, filling in the two key premises: that the overall level of addiction is more or less fixed, with laws and other social conditions simply determining which drugs will be abused, and that the external costs of prohibition are much larger than the external costs of drug abuse itself. Granted these premises, the conclusion that the drug laws should be repealed follows; Burton proposes a non-commercial “state store” model as opposed to commercialization, which would tend to reduce the damage somewhat.

I don’t see any strong evidence in favor of the “natural level of addiction” theory. Moreover, while substitution among drugs is an important fact that tends to reduce the value of drug controls, complementarity is an equally important fact. Increased availability of cocaine would tend to increase the rate of alcohol abuse. As to external costs, alcohol is involved in about half the homicides and about a third of the highway fatalities in this country. And its legality doesn’t even keep the criminal justice system out of the problem: ignoring crimes committed under the influence, violations of the alcohol laws — mostly drunken driving and drunk and disorderly — account for many more arrests, though not as much prison time, as violations of all the controlled substances laws combined.

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