Global Commission on Drug Policy: ho, hum

Paul Volcker is certainly a very smart man, and Richard Branson is certainly a very rich one. But why should we take seriously their views on a hugely complex policy area about which they don’t happen to be experts?

The grandiloquently-named Global Commission on Drug Policy has issued its final press release report. Not a new idea to be found; just recycled legalization talking points. Not surprising, with a commission long on celebrity but short on relevant expertise and a staff of “advisers” drawn entirely from within the “drug policy reform” cocoon.

I wouldn’t mention it, except an academic colleague asked me at lunch Friday about the “new United Nations report about the failure of the war on drugs,” and a Canadian network called and asked me to join in a debate on the report (invitation withdrawn after they asked me whether I was for or against decriminalization and I answered simply “No”). So it looks as if the decision to put resources into press relations rather than analysis has paid off.

For the curious, here’s a short list of what’s wrong about, or missing from, the document.

* The report never acknowledges any tradeoff between drug control measures and drug abuse, simply reciting the obvious fact that current measures have left a substantial drug abuse problem as if that proved that eliminating the measures would not change the size of the problem.

* The report does not deal with the problems created by alcohol and tobacco: between them, a rather poor advertisement for the “public health” benefits of non-prohibitory policies.

* The claimed results from Portugal are not nearly as clear as Glenn Greenwald pretends they are.

* Even assuming Portugal’s decriminalization of use was a success, there is no reason to think that the results of full legalization of commerce would in any way resemble those of decriminalization of use.

* Eliminating cannabis prohibition – which I favor – would have only very modest benefits in terms of reducing drug-dealing violence and drug-related incarceration. Of the roughly half a million people behind bars on drug charges in the United States, about 30,000 – one in fifteen – is there for a cannabis offense.

* Desistance mandates under probation grossly outperform any existing drug treatment regimen: in Hawaii, 80% of a group of long-term methamphetamine users was on the street and not using after a year on HOPE; compared to randomly selected controls, their rates of arrest for new crimes and of incarceration were reduced by more than 50%. That falsifies the claim that “trying to manage this complex condition through punishment is ineffective.”

* David Kennedy’s Drug Market Intervention strategy has demonstrated the capacity of harm-reduction law enforcement; the goal is to force illicit market transactions into less harmful forms. Why ignore such a proven, practical strategy?

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:

16 thoughts on “Global Commission on Drug Policy: ho, hum”

  1. Thank you Mark for the link to Keith Humphreys’ October post on drug deaths in Potugal and how to skew statistics to score points. I was on the road at the time and missed it.
    Among the many comments to the post suggesting various reasons for the drop off and then rise in drug deaths after decriminalization no one mentioned what seems the most obvious factor: Drug adicts from around the EU moving to a country with less draconian laws. An interesting question is, what are the nationalities of individuals who die from OD before and after decriminalization?

  2. “* The report does not deal with the problems created by alcohol and tobacco: between them, a rather poor advertisement for the “public health” benefits of non-prohibitory policies.”

    Demonstrating that you really WOULD bring back Prohibition, if you thought you could get away with it. You drug warriors really are lunatics, no matter what efforts you make to look reasonable. Your fundamental unreasonableness stems from you conviction that you are somehow entitled to force other people to conform to your preferences, and the only question is how to best go about it.

    Try dealing with the fact that we gave up on Prohibition because, whatever the health benefits of prohibitory policies might be, they pale in comparison to the social costs of those policies. And Prohibition MK II, “the war on drugs”, has been no different, except that the insanity has been sustained longer, and so the social costs, including financing world-wide terrorism, have been greater, too.

  3. I hate to do it, but I have to sorta second Brett here – there is an immense amount of suffering and waste involved in the war on drugs, and I’ve come to what *minor* percentage of it is not deliberate at the higher levels. This horror is pretty much ignored by the people like you, Mark, or every presentation would start with that background. When dealing with policy, you have to count the costs and the benefits, and I’ve never seen anything from you that really counts those costs, as opposed to considering marginal and minor changes.

  4. It really does seem as if your logic would favor criminalizing alcohol and tobacco. The fact that this was an utter disaster, and that there is a social cost associated with making large swaths of the population into criminals, seems not to rate as significant. Why?

  5. I didn’t see an argument for prohibition of tobacco and alcohol. I did see a demand that drug policy address tobacco and alcohol, if it’s going to be justified on the basis of public health.

    I can think of several things that might mitigate alcohol and tobacco harm, short of prohibition. For tobacco at least, high taxes tend to reduce consumption among young people. (For adult smokers, demand is inflexible with respect to price.) Advertising bans and anti-consumption public service ads, which are known to be effective, could also be used.

  6. I disagree – Mark here is just putting out markers on the data. Specifically that alcohol and tobacco don’t show that public harm is reduced by legalization, medically speaking at least.

    The liberty based argument is that impinging on freedom is also a gross harm that needs to be weighed. Mark attempts to minimize the harm to liberty from M.J. prohibition by only citing the prison population ratios. This misses all the other harms: drug tests for all sorts of things, limits to college loans (?), and so on.

  7. If government policy on drugs was run by compassionate, knowledgeable academics like Mark Kleiman, then I would agree that legalization would be an over-simplified and suboptimal response.

    But given that government drug policy is run by idiots and demagogues, and there is no reason to expect this to change in the forseeable future, even legalization would be an improvement.

    A Kleimanite harm-reduction policy would probably be better than straightforward legalization, but legalization would be far better than what we’ve got now. Look at the incarceration rates of the US compared to other industrialized countries; it’s hard to claim with a straight face that this is anything but completely unacceptable.

  8. Thanks to Mobius and Josh for responding to what I wrote, rather than to gross caricatures.

  9. To Brett’s point, read today’s column by Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the WSJ concerning the insane (my wording) war on drugs. And yes, we know that people will insist on killing themselves abusing drugs, tobacco and alcohol, but we can’t stop them and that is a proven fact. In the end, it’s their lives to waste. What we can do is confine use of these items to acceptable (often private) venues that limit opportunity for suicide and reduce the abstaining public’s contact with drug use, and that has been pretty successful particularly with respect to tobacco use.

    In the meantime, prohibition, as with alcohol prohibition in the last century, is killing and endangering more innocent lives than it is saving.

  10. Mark is reading the report as a set of specific policy recommendations, and scores good points againat them. But the function of such efforts by the great and the good is more to shift the conventional wisdom and especially the standard framing of the problem. Scrapping the war rhetoric, focussing on actual harm rather than demonising users, experimenting with looser regulation and providing treatment are the ideas that I kept from the executive summary, and I think they match Mark’s approach pretty well.

  11. Even assuming Portugal’s decriminalization of use was a success…

    Even calling it a “draw” on health outcomes ignores the huge benefit of not pulling thousands of users through the CJS ringer with its associated harms. In that dimension the Portugal model seems a huge success and could keep, oh, hundreds of thousands of people out of the CJS in the U.S. Then add in the gains of having better public relationships with police, and users not fearing calling an ambulance for overdosing friends, etc.

    about 30,000 – one in fifteen – [are behind bars] for a cannabis offense.

    Does this figure really include all the cases where cannabis criminalization “plays a part” in landing a user in jail? Violating parole/probation by testing positive for it; gaining a criminal record or a “strike”; awaiting trial in jail for those who can’t afford bail. The fact that anyone spends any amount of time in the CJS for peaceful cannabis use/distribution should disturb us.

    Look, HOPE and DMI are fine strategies and let’s hope they get wider use. In the meantime, I see broadening the public discourse to include alternatives to criminalization is a worthwhile goal. Considering people can’t even get recreational pot commercialized in California, I have zero fear that the “legalizers” are going to get any radical change through the system like cocaine/meth legalization.

    @James Wimberly, exactly.

  12. Seriously, when Mark is calling our current alcohol policy “insane laxity”, I don’t think I’m far mistaken in thinking he’d bring back Prohibition, if it were in his power.

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