The 80/20 Rule and HOPE

A minority of drug users consume the majority of drugs. What to do?

George Will’s latest column starts out with a key insight about drugs and drug policy: the bulk of the volume is consumed, the bulk of the money spent, and the bulk of the damage taken and inflicted, by a minority of users: the ones who lose control of their drug-taking. As is often the case, 20% of the people engaged account for 80% of the activity.

When it comes to cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, those heavy users are likely to be criminally active, and therefore to come into contact with the criminal justice system. If we could drastically reduce their drug use, we could drastically reduce the volume of illicit drug sales, reducing the drug-market problems here and abroad.

The good news is that we now precisely how to do this: frequent, random drug testing and very short jail stays for each incident of detected use for heavily drug-involved felons on probation, parole, or pretrial release. The HOPE approach not only cuts down on their drug use, it reduces their days-behind-bars by more than half, since they don’t get arrested for new crimes or revoked for probation/parole violations nearly as often as those on what is now “normal” probation or parole.

That’s the way to escape the unpleasant choice Will sketches between enriching a few dealers and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others by maintaining prohibition or risking a huge increase in drug abuse by alcohol-style legalization.

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:

9 thoughts on “The 80/20 Rule and HOPE”

  1. Well, we could think about a small infringement on the socalled rights of the fictitious super persons called corporations, rather than being content with immiserating millions of real people, many black and brown.

    That is, we allow anyone to seek and obtain the drugs at government run dispensaries, like some states do with alcohol, but we forbid all advertising of said drugs. If you want the drugs, you go in, show your ID, pay the fee, and get the drugs, and the transaction is recorded in a database shared with all the other dispensaries. And the fee includes a serious surtax to fund drug treatment programs.

  2. Mark: Great coverage of your book, congrats.

    JMG: It’s a common argument that we will forbid advertising of drugs if they are legalized…but the law on this is settled: Any legal product can be advertised in the US. That’s why the US has all the pharma ads whereas Europe does not.

    1. Tobacco is an established legal industry based upon a psychoactive product and yet its advertising avenues have been severely curtailed. So the total prohibition of advertising of a legal product may be illegal, but containing it to narrow confines is possible. Even the pharma ads you refer to are required to disclose side-effects which usually makes for a comic juxtaposition with the promotional pitch that precedes such disclosure.

      The key point here is that as of the present recreational drugs are illegal and there is no existing legal industry to lobby for a liberal advertising regime. Most of the prominent public figures and organizations calling for legalization aren’t doing so on the basis that drugs are harmless, rather that drugs are harmful but prohibition is ineffectual and legal containment is better policy. This last point is crucial. Legalized drugs will be starting from a position of blanket condemnation. Most of these loud voices still relay statements about the great harmfulness of “drugs” and the necessity of treatment. Given that backdrop, any eventual political adoption of legalization will be centered on the paradigm of legal containment of drug use. In which case, a strict advertising regime à la Tobacco will be a natural part of the new policy. Now, whether such restrictions get loosened a couple of decades post-legalization ultimately depends upon the social experience of legal drugs.

    2. Who said anything about making them legal products to sell? Government dispensaries are not capitalist corporations, and these would not be branded drugs, but utterly generic.

      But it’s becoming ever clearer that the views here re drug wars are like the experts allowed to comment on war with Iran … Nobody who opposed the insanity with Iraq is allowed any airtime to comment on Iran; only the villagers who were absolutely absurdly wrong about Iraq have the right views meriting a chance to comment on the redux. Only those whose views remain within the narrow confines of acceptable opinion on the drug war need apply– only those who fear the hypothetical dangers of the unleashed corporate drug pushers (and who insist on dismissing all the ways in which they can be controlled) post here.

  3. “When it comes to cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, those heavy users are likely to be criminally active, and therefore to come into contact with the criminal justice system. If we could drastically reduce their drug use, we could drastically reduce the volume of illicit drug sales, reducing the drug-market problems here and abroad.”

    How could they not be criminally active? The drug laws make it illegal for them to obtain or be provided with the drugs, and make the drugs too expensive for them to afford by legal employment. That is to say, the fact that they’re criminally active is a product of the drug laws, not the drugs.

    The alternative approach would be to accept that the self destructive will succeed in destroying themselves, and make the goal of drug policy minimizing harm to everybody else, by allowing drug users to destroy themselves without engaging in property crimes or funding criminal enterprises.

    Harm mitigation, rather than harm redistribution, in other words.

  4. This problem will never go away until we dismantle the law enforcement-industrial complex that currently dominates the US. In Arizona, the governor’s chief of staff is a former lobbyist for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, so called even on their own website…you have to go down to the faint gray type at the bottom of the web page to see their full name listed), and his wife is a current one.

    Without a steady stream of slave^h^h^h^h^h ‘prisoners’ for their in-prison industries the business model of CCA and the others will fail, becaue you really cannot just keep prisoners for the per-diem that these private prisons can get away with charging the states, not without the kind of corner-cutting that leads to things like escaped murderers going on multi-state crime sprees.

    This is why the proliferation of SB1070-style laws all across the nation, the true object (and why CCA backed and helped write the law, staunch member of ALEC that they are) was not so much to drive undocumented immigrants out of the country as to provide a nice revenue stream from imprisoning them on state charges (and on the taxpayer’s dime) prior to deportation, which detention centers, not-so-coincidentally, they also run..

    Finally, the fact that cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine users are criminally active is because the drugs and the entire trade in such are illegal. Duh.

    You simply do not see a sizeable number of criminals commiting crimes in order to obtain alcohol or tobacco.

    People don’t hold up liquor stores to get the money to buy liquor.

  5. Two questions. Would these felons come into the criminal justice system only through committing other (non-drug) crimes, or would they come into it through committing drug-only crimes as well? How do we determine how much drugs someone is using?

  6. Yes, let’s all continue to scratch our beards ever so thoughtfully, and hmmm about how we can’t possibly quit this insane drug war …

    Meanwhile, the drug war claims another victim, and his killing will only serve to justify still more of the same. Good thing we’ve learned so much, we know not to say that we had to destroy the country and its constitution in order to save it:

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