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September 2008
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Jonathan Caulkins is tired of the legalization debate

The first salvo of responses to the Erowid article — Towards a Culture of Responsible Drug Use — is now up.
It is Jonathan Caulkins, Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University‰s Qatar Campus and Heinz School of Public Policy, with Is Responsible Drug Use Possible?
It is a singularly ignorant piece of argumentation, that defies basic logical analysis and completely sidesteps the concept of responsible public policy! I can’t even count how many ways I am offended by this piece of academically dishonest tripe.
He says:

While avoiding a full rehash of the by-now dull legalization debate, two points bear mention. First, American drug policy is easy to criticize as intrusive, ineffective, and mean-spirited. However, it does not follow that prohibition is necessarily a bad policy. […] The problems with America‰s prohibition stem primarily from particulars of its implementation, not from prohibition per se.
Second, the challenge is not in criticizing prohibition, but designing something better.

He finds the legalization argument “dull.” How quaint. The last decades have been about preventing even a proper discussion about legalization. There has been no legalization argument, because the prohibitionists (and the academics) say we can’t discuss it.
Note that Jonathan Caulkins is one of the co-authors of the Rand study “How Goes the War on Drugs” which I wrote about here, which stated:

Nor do we explore the merits and demerits of legalizing drugs, even though legalization is perhaps the most prominent and hotly debated topic in drug policy. Our analysis takes current policy as its starting point, and the idea of repealing the nation’s drug laws has no serious support within either the Democratic or Republican party. Moreover, because legalization is untested, any prediction of its effects would be highly speculative. […] For the purposes of this book, we think it is more productive to concentrate on policy alternatives that are politically imaginable, and for which it is possible to reach more confident conclusions about likely consequences.

In other words, in a prominent think-tank’s paper about drug policy, legalization wasn’t even allowed to be discussed or considered. And now, without having discussed or considered, Jonathan considers it “dull” and not worth considering. How convenient. And how academically dishonest. Caulkins is in the science of public policy. How would this attitude look in other sciences?

Some people say we should stop bleeding patients to purge them of bad humours. They say that the practice is not only ineffective, but dangerous. However, ending the use of bleeding patients is just not politically popular right now, so us doctors should merely study how to better use bleeding to cure people. Maybe we need to do a little more, or a little less, or bleed them in a different way…

Without even refuting legalization or defending criminalization with any logical arguments or… facts, Jonathan can simply state that prohibition simply needs to be… done better, and we should move on.
There are so many flaws in this overall article, I hardly know where to start, from the offensive opening straw man:

What distinguishes the Erowids is their assertion that modern humans must integrate psychoactive use into life. Apparently from their perspective, choosing abstinence, at either the individual or societal level, is inherently inconsistent with being modern.
Denying or denigrating an individual‰s right to choose temperance is an extreme position not worth engaging.

I have to assume that Caulkins has deliberately distorted the meaning of the Erowids’ discussion about how psychoactives, in one way or the other, legal or not, have permeated the fabric of all our lives, and that it behooves all individuals and society to be better informed. The only other option is that Caulkins is dumb as a rock.
Notice once again that, by misrepresenting the original argument, then denigrating the misrepresented argument, he says that there’s no point addressing it.
He then has some interesting speculation regarding various drug using categories, but without a frame of reference — ie, denying any possibility of discussing legalization and denying any responsibility for justifying criminalization — he’s just floating around on a free ride.
None of his discussions have any framework, because he has ignored the basic structure of a proper argument about the legal status of drugs. Throughout his piece, he assumes prohibition, refuses to entertain options other than prohibition, and yet refuses to defend criminalization based on a proper argument. Here’s what that proper argument must look like:
It’s not enough to say that certain drugs should be illegal because they’re dangerous to individuals or society. One must show:

that they are dangerous,

that criminalization actually significantly reduces the danger (and not merely use),

that criminalization is the best way to reduce the danger, and

that the side effects of criminalization won’t be worse, such as:

Corruption of Law Enforcement

Putting Drug Safety and Control in the hands of Criminals

Over-incarceration and the influence of the Prison-Industrial Complex

Enormous Black Market Criminal Profits

Drug War Violence

Damage to the Environment

Destruction of Families

Damage to Inner Cities and Poor Communities

Militarization of Law Enforcement and the Victims of Drug War Tactics

Racism and Civil Rights

Erosion of Civil Liberties

Foreign Policy Disasters

Financial Cost

Loss of the Truth

Otherwise. defense of prohibition is meaningless. [Note: The above is also the outline of a new website under construction and a book being written.]
Caulkins ends his piece with the age-old prohibitionist’s self-defining prohibition.

The responsible decision is to obey the law, even if doing so forecloses some pleasures, and in that respect responsible drug use is not possible in today‰s society, even ex post.

It’s bad because it’s illegal.
No discussion available yet at Cato’s site (there will be a full online debate later, I understand), but feel free to discuss at will here.
Jonathan is welcome to join in as well. I’m interested if he is willing to actually justify criminalization as good policy, rather than as good political policy.
Update: Alex at Drug Law Blog (who I don’t link to often enough) has reactions as well. He’s more polite to Jonathan than I am, but still notes that Caulkins “isn’t even attempting to seriously consider the broad range of possibilities.”
… it made Scott Morgan cringe

I‰m just amazed that Caulkins has shown up today to write about drug policy on the Cato website if he finds the drug policy debate boring.


I don’t know if you’ve followed the comments section on this post regarding Karin Litzcke’s article about Insite. I came down pretty hard on Karin Litzcke, and I still think her article deserved it, but I’ve got to say that I admire her greatly for coming here and participating in the discussion. She did so […]