The drug warriors are (also) stuck on stupid

Are John Walters and Ethan Nadelmann having a contest to see who can write the sillier op-ed?

Having published a columnful of the “drug policy reform” s.o.s. by Ethan Nadelmann, the editors of the Wall Street Journal now treat us to a dose of drug-warrior s.o.s.: from no one less than the Chief Drug Warrior himself, John Walters, the drug bizarre.

Walters still doesn’t know the difference between drug use and drug abuse; he appears to be blissfully unworried about drug-related violence here or in Mexico (where it’s now bordering on civil war) or the contribution of our insistence on spraying poppy crops to the al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan; he still doesn’t think HIV is worth a mention; and of course more than a million drug arrests per year and half a million drug offenders in prison are just peachy-keen, as long as fewer kids are smoking pot or trying MDMA or LSD. Walters thinks methamphetamine use has “collapsed.” With unerring accuracy, he praises futile and trivial anti-drug efforts while ignoring the genuine progress being made in breaking up street drug markets and forcing probationers to quit.

And of course Walters cites the alcohol problem as a reason not to change policies on any of the currently illicit drugs, without ever hinting that there are simple policy changes (higher taxes, restrictions on sales to drunk drivers and drunken assailants) that could actually do something about alcohol, the drug which accounts for more than 80% of the victims of substance abuse disorders: proof positive that Walters and his buddies are more interested in fighting the culture wars than in reducing the prevalence of substance abuse.

Walters and Nadelmann are like a pair of aging vaudeville comedians, still whacking away at each other with their slapsticks long after everyone in the audience has gotten bored with them.

I only wish I thought that the editors of the Wall Street Journal had deliberately chosen these two exercises in unreality to illustrate how completely what passes for the drug policy debate in political and journalistic circles is stuck on stupid. But I’m just about certain that they have been taken in by the illusion that they, in turn, foist on their readers, an illusion that the Walters drug-warrior crowd and the Nadelmann drug-legalizer crowd have done their best to foster because it’s in their mutual interest: the illusion that there’s no alternative to the War on Drugs other than a virtual free market in drugs with a few not-very-important regulations, more or less on the alcohol model.

The arguments for the drug war and for “an end to prohibition” are symmetrically nonsensical, only with opposite signs: rather like a particle and its anti-particle. Sadly, there’s a difference; I see no hope that the “drug war” and “drug policy reform” might someday meet and disappear in a flash of photons.

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: