Fifteen Minutes Dep’t

George Will’s latest column mentions Drugs and Drug Policy.

George Will’s column mentions Drugs and Drug Policy.

Will, who in some ways is still an old-fashioned “small-government” conservative, is inclined to think that drug policy is no more effective than the other social policies he distrusts. But he’s willing to think seriously about what the example of legal alcohol has to tell us about the likely results from legalizing cocaine.

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:

23 thoughts on “Fifteen Minutes Dep’t”

  1. “Another legal drug, nicotine, kills more people than do alcohol and all illegal drugs — combined.”

    What rot. Nicotine probably kills no more people every year than does caffeine. What kills people are substances in tobacco, especially if burnt. And it is only a result of prohibitionist regulation that nicotine must be sold in combination with tobacco.

    1. “prohibitionist regulation that nicotine must be sold in combination with tobacco”

      Not so. You can buy it to be vaporized in electric inhalation devices (e-cig), in gum, and in patches. Of those I think only the patches require a prescription.

      Will substituted “nicotine” for “tobacco” as a kind of shorthand – and a common usage.

  2. A few things – first, Will isn’t a ‘small government conservative’; he’s a shameless man who knows which ‘big’ and which ‘small’ government he likes (hint – right and left). He’s certainly OK with right-wing policies, which are never *called* ‘social engineer’.

  3. Why not look at the example of legal caffeine to speculate on the likely results of legalized cocaine or legalized, say, 5-MeO-DMT?

  4. There are marijuana legalization initiatives springing up around the country, and at least one so far has gotten all the way to a state-wide vote. I haven’t seen any ballot initiatives to legalize cocaine or heroin in existence, much less make it to a ballot anywhere, and I think any of us would be highly (no pun intended) surprised to see such a proposal offered on our ballots this November.

    There are those who, like me, are of the opinion that legal regulation is preferable to prohibition in the general case, but the drug policy debate most of the public is having seems to be all about marijuana and has nothing to do with cocaine or heroin, so it seems odd to me that so many articles on “The drug legalization dilemma” that address the question of legalization tend to focus on those drugs and some, like Will’s article, practically ignore marijuana altogether. It’s almost as if there are so little reasoned arguments against marijuana legalization that opponents are left with poorer rhetorical devices at their disposal, such as subtly conflating mj with much more harmful drugs by responding to the public debate about marijuana legalization with an argument against legalizing cocaine and heroin, as George does in his article (follow his “legalization” link at the beginning of the article where he defines the debate he’s responding to, then look for references to mj in the rest of Will’s post).

    1. Yes, very few voters like the idea of legalizing cocaine. And yes, dishonest drug warriors try to argue against cannabis legalization by linking it to cocaine legalization. But the leadership of the “drug policy reform” movement is clearly committed to legalizing everything, not just cannabis. If you want to “end the drug war” and stop having 500,000 drug dealers behind bars and a $60B/yr illicit industry, legalizing cannabis won’t do it. Just a month ago I heard Ethan Nadelmann and Cesar Gaviria arguing that opposition to legalizing any drug could be based only on fear, prejudice, ignorance, rent-seeking, or fanatical Puritanism.

      So the anti-drug-warriors use the same rhetorical trick in reverse: they argue for cannabis legalization as if it had all of the advantages of cocaine legalization. But they’re quite different issues. The big gain from legalizing cannabis would be allowing tens of millions of people to enjoy what is (for them) a harmless pleasure in peace. The big gain from cocaine legalization would be less bloodshed and fewer people behind bars.

      1. “The big gain from cocaine legalization would be less bloodshed and fewer people behind bars.”

        Sounds good to little old me. Especially if we offered more treatment, too. Realistically I suppose that last bit is a long shot (sigh).

        1. Realistically I suppose that last bit is a long shot (sigh).

          Why? “More treatment” is the only thing that prohibitionists and meliorists agree on. If you provide a little number-crunching to show that treatment costs less than jail (and it generally does), then you can even get fiscal conservatives on-board. The Santorum-Palin-every-sperm-is-sacred crowd will be your only opponents. Not bad.

      2. I’m not sure I’m following you on the big gain advantages. The FBI stats I’ve seen indicate that marijuana arrests are about half of all drug arrests, equal to cocaine and heroin combined for manufacture and sale, and three times that of cocaine and heroin combined for possession. Elsewhere I’ve seen stats that about one out of every eight prisoners doing time for drug offenses are for marijuana. Marijuana is a huge black market with high profits, high volume, and high demand. Highly profitable black markets tend to be violent. Are you saying marijuana legalization wouldn’t result in significant gains from less bloodshed and fewer people behind bars? How is it that cannabis legalization doesn’t have “all of the advantages of cocaine legalization”?

      3. I can’t actually tell – Mark, are you arguing that it is preferable to hold the line against pot, on a sort of slippery slope argument here?

        I know we differ on policy issues, and I appreciate that your views are more nuanced that your detractors like to think. But this seems to be a strange digression from where I thought you stood on pot.

  5. “Just a month ago I heard Ethan Nadelmann and Cesar Gaviria arguing that opposition to legalizing any drug could be based only on fear, prejudice, ignorance, rent-seeking, or fanatical Puritanism.”

    Actually, I think the biggest thing behind opposition to re-legalizing drugs is simple busy-body ism: The conviction that you know better than other people what’s good for them, and are entitled to shove it down their throats whether they like it or not.

    1. You know, I’d love to see a conservative/libertarian make an argument without a rape-blowjob metaphor.

      In this case, it is especially annoying because I happen to agree with you (I think).

      1. I’m really curious about this, Jamie. I don’t even know how that would work as a rape/blowjob metaphor. “Ram it down their throats,” maybe. But “shove”? How would you “shove” “it”? When it comes to sex acts, nobody ever says they’re going to “shove it.” The only way that phrase makes sense is as a reference to force-feeding – shoving food down their throats, hence shoving what you think is good for them down their throats. That’s the way I’ve always heard it used, and in that way it’s a perfectly appropriate metaphor.

        1. As with most anything, This Has Been Discussed on the interwebs. Try Atrios or Balloon-juice. I don’t have any particular linguistic training, but I’m not the first to make the observation.

          1. No, you’re not the first to make a sexual allusion in an effort to embarrass people into not using a non-sexual metaphor. It’s, regrettably, a common enough ploy.

  6. With legal alcohol, according to the article, causing abuse or dependency in 7% of the population, and supposing that other drugs replicated this (as the article supposes), then all we’d need to do is legalize 19 more drugs and we’ll have 140% of the population in abuse or dependency.

    Who can argue with that logic?

  7. To me it is pretty obvious that yes, there will be more drug use if we legalize. But that has good as well as bad sides. Drug use is a dangerous recreational activity. We don’t talk about skydiving or bungee jumping or mountain climbing as if they have no social good. The only reason we do this with drugs is because of snobbery- people assme skydivers are intelligent and middle class, whereas crack users are dumb and poor.

    The real lesson of prohibition is that people have a right to do things that other people disapprove of and which are dangerous.

    1. “The real lesson of prohibition is that people have a right to do things that other people disapprove of and which are dangerous.”

      Which is exactly what Mark and the drug warriors disagree with.

      But I don’t think that’s the “lesson” of Prohibition; That’s a point people disagreed on both before and after that disastrous experiment.

      I think the lesson of prohibition was that, however great the harm from a drug, the harm consequent to banning it can easily be worse. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson the drug warriors are absolutely determined not to learn.

  8. And yet if we assumed a vastly worse rate of addiction (say 10%, a 50% increase in addiction over alcohol,) what would the net effect be?

    I and many other in this country have dabbled with Meth, Cocaine, Mushrooms, LSD, Ecstasy and more than dabbled with marijuana and alcohol. And yet we’ve maintained a job, paid taxes, refrained from raping the neighbors daughters and haven’t robbed a liquor store. And yet this vast majority (90%) means nothing to the drug warriors and their statist apologists like Mark. (Who I view with great respect, though I disagree with him).

    I propose that 60B a year and more. permanently destroying the lives of tens of thousands of people annually who’s great “crime” is choosing to get “drunk” on a substance not approved by the government, the complete abrogation of the 4th amendment to the constitution, intrusive drug-testing (to see if you have smoked pot in the last 6 weeks) etc. is a far greater harm than that extra 3% of the population doing their thing. Especially when doing that thing means little in the way of larger societal impact.

    How many people do you see holding up a liquor store for their alcohol fix? NONE. That’s right, because the drug is legal, easily and cheaply available, and their addiction can be fed by an hour’s begging at the worst.

    Contrast that to a 20-minute high of cocaine, where the cost is $50 or more for 20 minutes. It’s only $50 because it’s illegal. It would be $5 if not for the illegality. Perhaps $10 if you included exorbitant taxes.

    People are going to narcoticize themselves. There is nothing whatever you can do to stop that. You can reduce it to some extent, but the cost of that reduction far, far exceeds the cost of legalization.

    I have yet to see a study that includes ALL the horrific societal effects as well as the monetary effects of legalization vs. prohibition. I’d love to see that done in a serious way.

    Mark, as usual, wants legalization-lite. As usual, he wants to control people’s bodies because he thinks he knows what is “best” for them. Typical argument from a Democrat apparatchik.

    I despise the GOP, but when the alternative is Newt-Gingrich with a happy face, I fail to be moved. And yes Mark, you dress your arguments up in rational-sounding arguments, but those arguments are only rational if you assume our current policy of prohibition on what people want, WILL use and WILL get, whatever laws you pass, is based on some semblance of reality. It isn’t. It is rational only in comparison with insane people that even other crazy people grasp may have a screw loose.

    It’s the continual argument that government policy can save people from themselves if only it were smarter, more compassionate, etc. The base argument is flawed in it’s entire concept. You Cannot save people from themselves. People WILL make irrational, stupid decisions. Some of these will have serious negative social consequences. You CAN outlaw the things with those consequences and everyone, including the dopers, will be behind that. But Malum Prohibitum has been an exercise in futility from day one. Arguing for status-quo-lite and further taking issue with the rational people who call into questioon the entire fiasco, does your side no favors in the long run. We are going to win this fight. If nothing else, because the criminality YOU GUYS case, will start to affect voters outside of Arizona.

    I wish that every bit of the drug trade’s illegal effects were felt in suburbia tommorow. We would immediately legalize drugs. -That’s the only thing that’s saving prohibition. If the draconian effects of this evil policy were felt everywhere equally, this conversation would have been taking place two decades ago.

  9. Thank you Bill, for eloquently articulating everything I feel is wrong about Mark’s approach to drug policy. It seems to me that people like him (who I refer to as “the pro-establishment community”) start with the view that we can’t POSSIBLY fully legalize ANY drug, and work backwards from there.

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