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August 2007



More on The Lost War

Misha Glenny’s outstanding article in the Washington Post: The Lost War has continued to get some attention (although I’d love to see it picked up by more than just the Daily Herald (Utah)).
The web has picked up on it pretty well, including some interesting comments from Ilya Somin (Volokh), Pete McCormack, and Dr. Tom O’Connell.
And, of course, the Washington Post felt obligated to seek out someone to rebut the piece, so they dredged up former ONDCP spokesman Robert S. Weiner for The War is Not Lost

With a comprehensive anti-drug strategy in place, involving foreign policy, enforcement, education, treatment and prevention, overall drug use in the United States has declined by roughly half in the past 25 years […] Do we want to go back?

Notice several sleights of hand, here.
First — Misha Glenny’s piece was specifically about prohibition. Weiner wants the drug war to get credit for education and treatment. Nobody opposes those. In fact, reformers believe that education and treatment are part of the necessary replacements for enforcement. But Weiner has no way of claiming any positive results of the drug war by just talking about enforcement, because none exist. And nowhere does he justify the concept of “comprehensive.”
Second — Statistics. Drug use statistics wander all over the place (partly due to the difficulty of getting reliable information from a survey about committing illegal acts). If you look at the government data, you’ll see that it all depends on what years you pick, what populations, what drugs, etc.
Third — Drug “use.” It is ridiculous to assert that some arbitrary reduction in drug “use” is a benchmark for drug war victory, particularly if you’re trying to promote the idea that the drug war is supposedly providing some benefit to society. Reduction of “use” is meaningless, because it ignores the real problems.
Let’s say you have two drug users — Joe and Larry. Joe likes to do a couple lines of cocaine once a month or so for fun (or maybe smoke a joint). Larry is a pretty hard core heroin addict and spends much of his time working to get more. Strict enforcement might actually affect Joe. His drug use isn’t that big a deal to him, so the risk of jail may just cause him to switch to tequila. Presto! A 50% reduction in drug use by Weiner’s standards. (Of course, no way is Larry going to be deterred from drug abuse by prohibition. He’ll keep at it until some criminal laces his heroin with fentanyl and his friends are too afraid of the cops to take him to the emergency room.) Net value to society from a 50% reduction in use: negative.
Fourth — Completely left out of the Weiner’s equation, of course, are the costs of the drug war — prohibitionists never talk about them. And that was Glenny’s primary point, totally ignored in rebuttal.
But Weiner has to find some way to put a positive spin on a total disaster.

If any other problem — hunger, poverty, illiteracy — were reduced by half, we’d call it major progress.

Now there’s an idea — maybe we should lock up a couple of million poor people. Make students pee in a cup while conjugating verbs to reduce illiteracy. Smash down the doors of hungry people, kill their dogs, set off flash bombs, throw them to the floor and force nutritious food down their throats.
I guess we could win all these wars if we try hard enough.
Note: Also see Pat Rogers’ rebuttal.

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