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November 2007
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Responses to Nadelmann’s ‘Legalize It’ in Foreign Policy

Via Vice Squad, I learn that Foreign Policy magazine has published some letters in the November/December issue, responding to Ethan Nadelmann’s cover article here with the rest requiring subscription or day pass to access) are a rather bizarre mixed bag.
It starts with a really ignorant letter from Paul Rexton Kan (Assistant Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College), including this nonsense:

Imagine a world where all drugs were legal. Vials of cocaine would be produced by multinational corporations and sold alongside packets of cigarettes and
bottles of alcohol at local stores. Instead of needle-exchange programs, coupons for free needles would be distributed in periodicals, perhaps even in Foreign Policy. The needles themselves would be made available near vending machines that dispense a drug, say methamphetamine, just as matches are sold near some tobacco machines. Does Nadelmann not consider that an alarming prospect?

This idiot supposedly has a doctoral degree. (Of course, I can’t guarantee that he’s really an idiot — he may simply be a propagandist who thinks that the readers of Foreign Policy are all idiots. I’m guessing it’s probably a combination.)
First… tobacco machines? What century is this guy from? I’m old enough to remember the days of cigarette machines in laundromats and grocery stores, but those days ended in most of the country once federal laws required states to find ways to guarantee that they weren’t selling cigarettes to minors. Now, the machines are mostly relegated to locations that already restrict age. In other words, cigarettes are legal, but regulated.
In any legalization scheme, there will be some regulation. Some drugs may be regulated more tightly than others. It’s ridiculous to assume that meth would be sold in vending machine, and it’s dishonest for Kan to discount consideration of legalization by positing some fanciful version of legalization that would never happen in the real world.
This trash is followed by a fascinating, yet frustrating letter by Robert MacCoun (Professor of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley) and Peter Reuter (Professor of Public Policy at University of Maryland).
Check this out:

As we argued in Drug War Heresies (Cambridge University Press, 2001), there is little doubt that legalizing cocaine and heroin would reduce many of the harms that most concern us now. Crime would fall dramatically, the drug-market disorder that is the bane of so many inner-city communities would disappear, and, with careful planning, the connection between HIV and injecting drugs could be broken.

Sounds like a resounding vote for legalization, rather than a critique, but then it gets… a little surreal…

Even if heroin use increased by 50 percent, society would probably be better off without the ill effects of prohibition. But if it increased by 500 percent (still well below the levels of alcohol or tobacco dependence), society would probably be worse off. […]
Legalization might be a good policy option. But its advocates must accept the uncertainty of predicting any potential consequences and acknowledge the transformationÖrather than complete eliminationÖof the drug problem that would remain.

What the hell is that about? What does it mean?
That’s the frustrating part. First, notice the offensive straw man. Who has said that legalization would result in the complete elimination of drug problems? Why is this position being assigned to drug policy reformers? There isn’t a shred of evidence for it. Of course, there is some uncertainty involved in legalization — nobody disputes that. Where there is absolutely no uncertainty is in the fact that prohibition is an abject disaster. Is this some kind of academic obsession with providing some kind of hypothetical “balance” — even in cases where none exists in fact?
And one more point — It seems to be a popular trick, among academics in particular, to make the completely unfounded suggestion that, if legalized, cocaine or heroin use would somehow automatically rise to the “levels of alcohol and tobacco dependence” (and apparently without any reduction in those). Logically, this makes no sense at all. Substitution is a much more likely scenario than doubling up. And different drugs will have wildly different usage patterns. There are an awful lot of people who like to drink beer who won’t want to shoot up heroin.
This should be patently obvious just by looking at legal drugs. There’s a whole lot more beer consumption than that of whiskey (or all spirits combined). Even if you look at only the portion that’s pure alcohol, beer consumption still outnumbers spirits by 2-1. And cigar and pipe smokers are vastly outnumbered by cigarette smokers.
My guess is that there would be a relatively large increase in marijuana use, a small increase in cocaine and heroin use, a possible decrease in cocaine and heroin abuse, a small decrease in alcohol use, a flattening of tobacco, and a dramatic reduction in meth use. But that’s just a wild guess — so much depends on the methods and timetables of legalization, and the degrees of regulation.
But guess what? We don’t know. Nobody knows. Legalizers have made the case, clearly and specifically, that an alternative to prohibition is not just a value, but a necessity. Nobody has made a clear and specific case as to why continuing prohibition makes sense (and vague, unsupported, and illogical “what ifs” can’t cut it).
Look, I really appreciate the work of MacCoun and Reuter (I own their book and find it an interesting and useful academic exercise, although in terms of prediction it’s little more than wild guessing), but it seems to me that there’s some bizarre academic urge to wait for a magical definitive study as to what post-prohibition specifically will bring before fully committing to ending prohibition — and that attitude does real harm. This isn’t Schrûdinger’s Cat — we can’t sit around having theoretical discussions about the state of the unseen cat. We are dying and society is being damaged more each day this drug war continues.
We’re not going to know specifically what legalization will bring until we actually try it. Somewhere. Somehow. And people need to realize that and have that fact inform the conversation.
The final letter in Foreign Policy is from Mathea Falco, President of Drug Strategies. She attempts to use misdirection by pretending that the question is how to cut drug consumption, and then claims her public health approach will do that better than legalization. That’s just standard drug warrior technique of re-writing the question that I’ve talked about before.
Update: I think I should clarify one of my thoughts. “We’re not going to know specifically what legalization will bring until we actually try it. ” There’s no doubt that legalization has been tried in a number of watered down forms in the modern day, or fully in the past, and that every such instance has failed to confirm the speculative fears of those who hesitate to give full throated support to legalization. And yet, they’ll say, that was a different time and place — there’s no way to prove that legalization would be as benign here and now.
And that’s true. We can’t prove it. But the evidence supporting legalization far outweighs any supposed evidence supporting prohibition. Period. And that’s all that matters.
Paul is beating John in the head with a baseball bat. “Stop it!” John cries. Paul responds: “No. I don’t dare. Who knows what might happen. Your left foot might fall off.” “What?!?” cries John, “… do you have any evidence that that’s likely to happen?” Paul: “Hey, I can’t take that chance. Until I have proof that you won’t lose your left foot, I’m going to have to keep beating you in the head… Sorry.”

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