Fanaticism in drug policy debate

The symmetric fanaticisms of the extreme legalizers and extreme drug warriors drown out sane policy debate.

Anyone who has followed the drug threads on RBC will have noticed the presence of opinionated, stubborn, ignorant, irrational, and angry advocates of drug legalization. That might create a false impression. In fact, there exists a parallel group of fanatics in the drug-war camp, though that viewpoint has been absent from the discourse here.

I was forcefully reminded of that when KPCC, the local public radio outlet, asked me to discuss cannabis policy on the Air Talk show. The interview itself went reasonably well; I didn’t say anything that will surprise RBC readers, but managed to raise most of the issues I wanted to raise. Then we were treated to some Olympic-level sophistry from the head of a California anti-legalization group, who has somehow convinced himself that we should continue to prohibit cannabis but shouldn’t raise alcohol taxes. As you listen to him recite his list of talking points, the mournful sound you hear in the background is rational debate dying a slow, painful death.

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:

22 thoughts on “Fanaticism in drug policy debate”

  1. I’m going to lay out the facts:

    1. Drug dependent people are price sensitive (which means liquor taxes should be increased dramatically to improve public health).

    2. Graphic warnings on cigarette packets deter people from smoking and are likely to be effective when affixed to other substances sold for non-medical use (because packaging/appearance matter).

    3. Advertising works (which means it should be limited like tobacco).

    4. At some point in Paul Chabot’s life his brain has disintegrated and turned into mush.

  2. I’ll agree with Mark that the drug warriors’ perspective has been missing from this site–and I’m grateful for it. I also believe that the word “puerile” might characterize some of the more imtemperate legalizers who post comments on this site. But, as always, I resist Mark’s suggestions that the two sides are created equal. A few differences between the two sets of extremists:

    – Both sides are motivated, in part, by ideology rather than facts. But the legalizers’ ideology is one of liberty; the warriors’ ideology is one of repression and (often enough) racism/xenophobia. The legalizers’ ideology is also a bit more coherent, as few warriors have any problem with alcohol.
    – Many warriors have a career interest in the war on drugs: corporations, politicians, some cops. This is true of very few legalizers. The warriors have serious funding; the legalizers do not.
    – The warriors (IMO) are more likely to flat-out lie.

    I share Mark’s position in the middle. But on one side, I see people I can talk to; on the other side I only see people I can fight.

    1. Ebenezer has nailed it. As the RBC notes from time to time, political processes suffer when ideology overshadows fact. Cannabis is only one manifestation of a larger problem in our discourse.

      American exceptionalism is woven into our cultural fabric and no political figure can denounce it without playing a losing game. However, it should be possible to play a winning game by framing it properly.

      What is it that makes America special? The answer is pragmatic realism. This means that decisions are based on and modified on observable consequences (sense data), and not on whether they adhere to standards of ideological purity. For example, austerity measures should be judged by their effects on things that can be measured objectively, and not on whether they adhere to ideals of small government and rugged individualism and low taxation.

      The Tea Party is, fundamentally, un-American in its insistence on applying the same policies in all circumstances, being uninterested in whether they work in some circumstances better than in others. Neoconservatism is un-American in putting force as a first choice in all circumstances abroad where some party or other is antagonistic to our preferences, regarding reluctance to shed blood as “appeasement.”

      It is the RBC and its allies who are the true red-blooded Americans. They are the heirs of William James, the archetypal American philosopher, and they should be exploiting this to their political advantage.

    2. I’m fairly strongly pro-legalization, but I’ve noticed my own opinion getting more nuanced and maybe less emotive as I see victory and potential overreach on the horizon. I fear Big Weed, and Spaghetti Monster help us if Big Meth gets going.

      Maybe the reverse the reverse is true for the warriors, who are getting less rational as they get more desperate.

      1. I don’t really fear Big Weed, but I do agree that one of the things that is going on is that the prohibitionists are getting more desperate. You can see the same thing in the gay marriage debate as well, and Obamacare. When people are losing, they start saying all sorts of dumb things.

        Having said that, I do think that Keith Humphreys, in a fashion, represents at least the prohibitionist mindset on this blog. That post he did on how wonderful and defensible Puritanism is was a classic of the genre.

        Over the last 20 years, society has become a lot more libertarian. The Internet is the likely cause. I don’t mean that everyone is turning into Rand Paul or Ayn Rand, but simply that in the past a lot of people took for granted the Humphreys position on Puritanism– that it was the government’s job to engage in all sorts of regulations of people’s personal choices, and that alcohol prohibition was some sort of unusual exception where it didn’t work because so many people drank and there was a ton of organized crime.

        But the Internet both allows for much more freedom and provides an example that society won’t collapse if people are allowed to express extreme ideologies, watch a lot of porn, reject religion, seek casual sex, straight or gay, and do all sorts of other things that were considered harmful in the past. And I think people are seeing that and realizing that Puritanism is actually a bad thing and the people can be trusted much more to make their own choices.

      2. Well, as far as ‘big meth’ it would be more accurate to call it ‘big speed.’ And it is already out there peddling its wares.
        But I submit that the speed-freaks of the 50s were better than the meth heads of today – better to have a safe, clean ‘upper’ out there then people burning meth. Every tightening of the regulatory ratchet on speed has made it worse and the culture around it more violent.

        1. Heavy users for alcohol and for illegal pot are the primary markets, so from a corporate perspective you want to capture as much of that market as possible and to enlarge that market. I assume the same’s true for meth, cocaine, and heroin, although I’m less sure about hallucinogens.

          Tobacco addiction starts in the teens, so that’s who Big Tobacco is aiming at. I expect no better from Big Weed and Big Meth, unless we start realizing that we can experiment with market legalization instead of making it controlled by big corporations who will influence political agendas.

  3. Legalizers are motivated by liberty as mentioned, but for those who use drugs or have used drugs it is more than just a general love of freedom. It’s about the desire to be left alone. It’s hard to fault someone who gets excited over the fact that another person is demonizing their lifestyle and advocating their punishment by the state. Many middle of the road types like to pat themselves on the back for being so rational, and can’t understand why drug users don’t rejoice at their enlightened view they should only be forced into treatment rather thrown into than prison.

    Complaining that legalizers are “opinionated, stubborn, ignorant, irrational, and angry” is like complaining that black Americans are opinionated, stubborn, ignorant, irrational, and angry on issues of racism or gay people on issues of gay marriage.

    1. I’m one of the opinionated, stubborn, ignorant, irrational, and angry legalizers, but I don’t agree with what you wrote. I understand why Mark feels the way he does. Plenty of legalizers reject evidence. I don’t think marijuana is really very harmful, but when I hear a legalizer argue that use won’t increase at all with legalization, I just wince. (I also don’t use drugs, and see it as a basic freedom issue.)

      The reality is, though, beyond the freedom is just the lies. If we were discussing, say, heroin policy, I would be perfectly willing to weigh costs and benefits and to think about restrictions on supply that could make it harder for a responsible heroin user to use stuff. That stuff is really dangerous. The problem is, marijuana is simply not that dangerous. As recreational choices go, it’s less dangerous than a lot of physical risks people take all the time like rock climbing and base jumping and big wave surfing. So you have lies being used to restrict freedom. A terrible combination.

  4. Rationality has performed its function and the debate is over. The drug war against cannabis was a malevolent and imbecilic action from the start. Asking for rational debate with drug warriors is akin to asking for rational debate with young earth creationists. Just can’t do it. If rationality prevails, one side is going down.

    Of course, I don’t care to debate creationists, already sitting in the dustbin of history as they are (Texas textbooks excepted). If creationists could still put evolution believers in jail, perhaps you might find some “opinionated, stubborn, ignorant, irrational, and angry” arguments in favor of natural selection as well.

    1. True enough as far as responding to drug warriors is concerned. Creationism is a fair analogy. But this is not equally true for responding to policy analysis suggesting that legalization will have both benefits and liabilities, just as is the case for nearly everything of substance that we undertake, and also not equally true for insisting that legalization raises issues of how to regulate what is going to be legal. “Legal” does not mean “unregulated” for anything I can think of: tobacco, alcohol, automobiles, restaurant operations, trading of stocks, and retailing of common merchandise. Mark may be referring to intemperate comments aimed at his insistence that these questions are crucially important in making policy around cannabis sale and use.

      1. The thing is, marijuana should certainly be regulated, but LESS regulated than the other things you mention. Indeed, even totally unregulated marijuana would probably only cause slight societal harms.

        And the fear is that strict marijuana regulations will allow the drug warriors to impose the same restrictions on people’s choices as prohibition did.

  5. I’d post this in the proper context, save that it’s WAY below the fold now: Please take note, reality based community:

    2014 begins with more people having lost their insurance due to the ACA, than have gained it. Millions more.

    Thought it needed to be mentioned, spin it however you like, on a “first, do no harm” basis, it’s a massive failure.

    Back on topic, there are fanatics who want to order people about, and fanatics who want to be left alone. Some of the former imagine they aren’t fanatics, because they regard their orders as more enlightened than some of the other members of the “order people about” faction. I’ll throw my lot in with the latter.

    1. That’s an interesting claim. Have you got a source? Ideally, one that doesn’t rely upon some kind of sneaky definition whereby people whose coverage changed year-on-year are counted as having “lost” their coverage?

      1. My coverage costs went up this year. Must be ACA.

        They went up last year — that was because ACA was coming.

        They went up the year before, again ACA was coming.

        They went up in 2007, probably because smart money was a Democrat would win and the ACA would happen.

        They went up in 2006. And 2005. And 2000. And 1998. And 1994. In fact, my coverage costs have gone up every year for the past 20 years. The only logical conclusion is the ACA is an evil Time Lord, and has raised prices and cancelled policies backwards and forwards through time.

    2. To be perfectly crystal-clear here, the claim you appear to be making is: “X people now have health insurance who didn’t have it previously. At the same time, Y people now lack health insurance who did have it previously. And Y is greater than X.” If this is true, it’s shocking news to me, and I’d be grateful to learn it.

    3. Are these people who have lost health insurance altogether, or people who have lost a particular policy but have acquired a different one?

Comments are closed.