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March 2006
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Mark Kleiman…. again.

I need to preface this post by noting that I believe Mark Kleiman to be a well-educated man with quite a bit of intelligence. He is considered an expert in drug policy. He is a liberal and writes passionately about liberal issues, yet in a balanced way, and he is always willing to speak up when he feels that another liberal blogger has gotten carried away in a particular point without enough evidence to back it up.
It is because of these things that I find his blind spot when it comes to prohibition so frustrating. Time and time again, he clearly, and with abundant data, points out failures in government policy. And then, almost invariably, somewhere out of the blue, he throws in some statement in favor of prohibition or opposed to legalizers, without a shred of logic or evidence. For someone who professes himself part of the reality-based community, it’s an unfortunate form of self-delusion.
In his latest: Such another victory…, he calmly and effectively dismantles the ONDCP’s claims regarding cocaine prices. And then watch…

At some point, policymakers are going to figure out something that’s been obvious to analysts for more than a decade: While prohibition reduces drug abuse (otherwise why are there several times as many abusers of alcohol alone as of all the illicit drugs combined?), and some level of enforcement is necessary to make prohibition a reality, increasing enforcement efforts against mass-market drugs can’t raise the prices of those drugs, or at least not much.

Did you catch it?

prohibition reduces drug abuse (otherwise why are there several times as many abusers of alcohol alone as of all the illicit drugs combined?)

What possible logic has been invoked here? Does Mark really believe that every single drug (alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, peyote, heroin, methamphetamines, glue, caffeine, aspirin, etc.) would have equal levels of abuse simply because they are legal? There are so many things wrong with that notion that it’s beyond absurd.
The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine Report: “Marijuana and Medicine, Assessing the Science Base” makes it clear that there are a host of factors that are correlated with drug dependence, including pharmacalogical effects of the drug, gender, age, genetic factors, individual risk-taking propensities, acceptance of a drug in society, and on, and on.
Mark may respond that he didn’t really mean that they’d be equal, but just that it’s obvious, since alcohol has so much more abuse than illegal drugs, then it must be true that prohibition works, otherwise there would certainly be at least somewhat higher levels of illicit drug abuse than now (if not actually equivalent to alcohol).
But of course, that isn’t obvious either. It’s at least as likely that those who are prone to abuse a particular drug will tend to find it whether it is legal or illegal. After all, Mark himself has noted that illicit drugs are not hard to acquire. In this case, prohibition would have no effect on levels of drug abuse.
It’s also at least as likely that there is a certain percentage of the population that is predisposed to substance abuse in general, and they’ll find a way to abuse some drug (either legal or illegal). In this case as well, prohibition would have no effect (other than potentially shifting someone from one drug to another).
It’s even possible that there are higher levels of abuse of a particular illicit drug than there would be of that same drug if legal. This could follow from a reluctance of those abusing illicit drugs to seek help, due to social stigma and fear of prosecution. In this case, prohibition would actually increase drug abuse.
The one thing that we can know for certain, is that the mere fact that there are many more abusers of alcohol than of illicit drugs does not provide any evidence (or a reality-based argument) that prohibition reduces drug abuse.
And remember, even if it turns out that prohibition actually does reduce drug abuse by some amount (something not demonstrated by Mark Kleiman), that is not sufficient argument in favor of prohibition, since you’d have to factor in the incredible amount of collateral damage caused by prohibition.
Further reality-based reading:
Mark Kleiman on:

Update: Check out this good article Elusive Victory, Disputed Statistics

Despite the ready availability of cocaine, the White House’s ONDCP reported: “Our … overseas counterdrug efforts have slowly constricted the pipeline that brings cocaine to the United States.”
Similar announcements have been issued regularly ever since Richard Nixon issued the official declaration of war on drugs in 1969. Four years later, Nixon said the United States had “turned the corner” on drug addiction and drug supplies.
When Washington’s first drug czar, William Bennett, left his post, the White House said he had put the U.S. “on the road to victory” in the drug war. That was 16 years ago. Today, cocaine, heroin and marijuana are as widely available as they were then – at sharply lower prices.
“The price decline began in 1979 and the downward trend has been steady,” said Mark Kleiman, director of the drug policy analysis program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kleiman is one of about a dozen academic experts in the United States who have studied the drug trade for decades.
They viewed with skepticism an assertion in the drug czar’s report that the street price of cocaine – the drug that most worries the government – had increased by 19 percent while purity had dropped by 15 percent between February and September 2005. The drug policy office called it a “trend reversal.”

Note Mark’s excellent contribution to this article. But because he cannot allow himself to envision any regime other than prohibition, when he is interviewed as an expert no alternative to prohibition will ever be raised. Here again, the article shows all the weaknesses of government policy, but never raises the possibility that an alternative might work.

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