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March 2006



An interesting discussion on drug policy available online

I discussed at some length the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report on drug policy by David Boyum and Peter Reuter.
AEI recently hosted a discussion about the report, bringing in the authors and several drug policy “experts.” (I use quotation marks, because that description can be somewhat hard to define.)
The entire session video is available online, and was… instructional. The session was hosted by James Q. Wilson, with presentations by David Boyum, Peter Reuter, Rand Beers, Edwin Meese, and Jacob Sullum (plus an audience Q&A session).
Many of the criticisms of the AEI study I mentioned in my article (despite the fact that the study savaged current policy) were reinforced in the session. Foremost is the fact that legalization was not allowed to be discussed in the study — of course.
The moderator (Wilson) tried to address this, noting that the study purposely did not include the option of legalization in part because both political parties are opposed to it, and there is no significant political movement in the country for legalization. And then Wilson tried to offer his own additional reason in this incoherent statement:

I infer there’s a second reason… research I have done
have led me to believe… that the legalization of drugs might well not reduce the number of drug addicts, but might increase it, and if it increases, depending again on how we finance these matters, this could lead to either an increase in crime, a decrease in crime, or no change in crime. Uh, much depends on those circumstances.

Well, that explains it!
Boyum and Reuter’s presentations were the rather standard academic circle-jerk of noting that current policies are an abject failure, and shifting some resources from enforcement to treatment would certainly be an improvement, we don’t have enough data, and since legalization is not an option, our recommendation is for the government to do… uh… less.
Then came Rand Beers, architect of Plan Colombia. He mostly talked about how he agreed that treatment was an improvement over enforcement, but that it was politically difficult to promote — suggesting that perhaps treatment as part of enforcement would be more politically possible.
Edwin Meese talked a nice game, but clearly went off the deep end in the morality mode. He talked about the importance on focusing on the drug problem as part of social disintegration. He misused tons of statistics, and then complained that the rest of the group weren’t talking enough about the increasing dangers of marijuana potency and how medical research was discovering all sorts of carcinogenic effects and mental health problems evidencing that marijuana is a much more serious drug than was previously supposed.
Meese’s contribution to the treatment question was to suggest that we increase the treatment facilities in prisons (clearly he was having none of the reduction of enforcement arguments. And finally, he entertained the group with a fantasy of how Plan Colombia was a shining example of major improvements in security, stability, human rights, reduction of coca growing, and tremendous improvement in the Colombian economy.
Jacob Sullum, of course, was the one who really had something to say. (The video page has links to the different points in the video, so if you don’t have time to watch it all, you can always jump right to Sullum’s section — worth it.) For those who don’t know, he’s a regular contributor at Reason’s Hit and Run, and author of the excellent Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use.)
Sullum had some really fine points to share, including discussing the notion of two views of harm reduction that are useful in discussing drug policy: micro harm reduction and macro harm reduction. Micro harm reduction measures the harm related to a policy as it impacts an individual. For example, allowing needle exchange for heroin use is clearly beneficial in micro harm reduction, because it reduces potential for blood-borne illnesses, whereas not allowing it does not provide any benefit. From a macro harm reduction analysis, you would look at the overall societal cost/benefit. So in the case of needle exchange, you’d see if the policy caused more people overall to use drugs, get addicted, cause problems, etc. and if that negative outweighed the positive of reducing blood-borne illnesses (as it turns out, needle exchange has proved to be positive at the macro level as well).
This micro and macro analysis seems to provide one of the best notions of a real discussion of cost/benefit. But as Sullum notes, there are still problems in definition. For example, he does not think that self-harm done by an individual should count as great as harm done to someone else, and particularly not as high as harm done by the government to people. (Most prohibitionists count self-harm highly, misattribute collateral damage as drug use related rather than prohibition related, and ignore harm done by the government.
Sullum also noted that the “all use is abuse” approach by the government is “one of the biggest barriers to clear thinking in drug policy.” He noted that if tomorrow, you were able to reduce the number of people using marijuana by 50% and didn’t have any affect on those who were abusing drugs, the government would celebrate as if it had won a major victory, when in fact, by any valid measurement, there would be no benefit to society whatsoever.
Really good stuff, there.
The Q&A was less interesting. Some good questions by some very familiar folks, but the answers tended to involve lies (Meese and Rand), or confusion (Reuter and Boyum).

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