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March 2005
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Even with Blinders On, Two New Studies Can See the Rotting Carcass of our Drug Policy

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Are We Losing the War on Drugs?
An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy
By David Boyum and Peter Reuter
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
(Released March 25, 2005)


How Goes the “War on Drugs”?

An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy
By Jonathan P. Caulkins, Peter H. Reuter, Martin Y. Iguchi and James Chiesa
RAND Drug Policy Research Center, funded by The Ford Foundation
(Posted March 21, 2005)

Two major scholarly research sites, two almost identical critiques of the drug war (note that one of the authors worked on both).
In both cases, the studies are grossly flawed in that they operate under the assumption, for the purposes of the study, that prohibition can be the only model. Therefore they almost completely ignore:

  • Side-effects of prohibition itself such as prohibition-fueled violence
  • The impact of other potential models, such as legalizationa and regulation, on their recommendations. (Imagine a doctor recommending a course of treatment for obesity, and being able to recommend surgery or drugs, but not exercise or dieting. Such a limited diagnosis would be quackery.)

Despite the fact that the flawed studies depend upon a continuation of some mix of prohibition and treatment, both were extremely harsh in their evaluation of current drug policy.
These are not radical think tanks. They’re solid, well-respected, and often called upon to testify in Congress. These devastating attacks on the current administration’s policies could be quite powerful. Both had very nasty things to say about the reliance on incarceration, and both criticized the emphasis toward marijuana prohibition.
Before I give you highlights from the studies, there’s one point that I found particularly interesting. I’d often wondered why the administration is so obsessed with marijuana, yet I hadn’t thought it through. It’s really quite simple. After getting failing grades in the past because of an inability to show results in the drug war, the government set a goal of reducing drug use by 10%.
How do you do that? Work on treating hard-core drug addicts that cause the most trouble? No, they’re too small a number and take too long to affect. However, the largest number of actual drug users are casual marijuana users — it’s easy for them to quit, so that becomes a great target for reaching stupid goals like a reduction of 10% in drug users. So the administration has consciously and intentionally crafted a policy that specifically goes after casual marijuana users who are not a problem, while neglecting drug addicts who have a problem.
It also affects other aspects of their policy:

  • Harm Reduction? No, that’s good for long-term health, but doesn’t give them immediate reduction of numbers. Better to go for abstinence only policy for potential short-term numbers gain even if it’s worse in the long-run (and if an addict dies, that helps the numbers too).
  • Reality-based education? No, that’s better for long-term, but abstinence-only education gives them short-term numbers gain.
  • Medical marijuana? No, those people still count as drug users under federal statistics.

So, as both studies note, the very numbers-based approach to goals encourages drug policy that is completely backward and counter-productive.

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