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December 2008
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Mark Kleiman’s at it again

The foremost academic apologist for a kinder, gentler prohibition — Mark Kleiman — has resurfaced to address prohibition again, and as usual resorts to academic dishonesty and outright wankery.
Kleiman had pretty much stopped writing about drug policy at his blog, particularly during the election season, possibly (I thought) because he got pummeled every time he would make outrageous, unsupported statements slamming drug policy reformers.
But all the press surrounding the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition seems to have brought him back to his usual prohibition-enabling diatribe (and so, of course, I must rant in response). Kleiman starts:

As Talleyrand said about the restored Bourbons, the anti-prohibitionists have learned nothing and forgotten nothing in thirty years of making exactly the same points in exactly the same way. Ethan Nadelmann’s op-ed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal doesn’t admit that “an end to prohibition” means increased availability, and that one of the consequences of increased availability is increased abuse.

It doesn’t seem to me that it was the point of his OpEd — the point of the OpEd was that prohibition was damaging and that drug prohibition has similar failings. But that’s not enough for Mark.

Of course that isn’t where the argument ends; maybe the increased level of abuse is a price worth paying to avoid the bad consequences of prohibition: the harms generated by the illicit markets and by enforcement, plus the loss of liberty and consumers’ surpluses for those (for almost all drugs, the majority) who would use the drugs without falling in to the trap of drug abuse. But that’s where any honest argument has to start: how much more abuse are we going to have as a result of a given change in the laws? And that’s where Nadelmann & Co. relentlessly refuse to start it. Their “vigorous and informed debate” refuses to face the basic trade-off involved.

Note how Kleiman decides that he gets to determine where the start of the argument should lie. Apparently, unless we’re willing to state exactly how many more people will abuse drugs if they’re legal (regardless of the distribution structure), then he’s going to take his ball and go home and not discuss alternatives to prohibition. In point of fact, that’s his way of avoiding the “informed debate” at all — because he loves prohibition. He just wants to tinker with it to make it better.
But the issue of how many people use drugs and how many people abuse drugs is actually secondary to the issue of prohibition. That’s the part that Mark won’t grasp. Prohibition is the disease we are trying to end. And you can’t heal it by tinkering around the edges with drug courts and mandatory drug testing.
Prohibition is people dying and being imprisoned and corrupt cops and bad foreign policy and dangerous streets and broken families and over-militarization and environmental damage and racism and fiscal irresponsibility and drug dangers. This is the start of the debate. It is what really and truly matters. Then, once we have done that (and concurrently), we can look at what kinds of legalization models will work to truly reduce the harm of drugs. But that’s useless as long as prohibition is doing more damage. And as long as the “academics” have dishonestly refused to even discuss alternatives to prohibition (even as they formidably demonstrate the failures of prohibition), it is up to the drug policy reformers to continue to force people to pay attention.
Kleiman says that it’s dishonest to talk about ending prohibition until we talk about how many more people will abuse drugs. It’s not. In our country, legal is the default, and it is incumbent upon those who would deny liberty to justify it. Let the prohibitionists tell us how much it costs (in corruption, tax dollars, violence, loss of liberty, etc., etc.) for each addict we stop.
But that aside, there’s another issue here. Why is it that Kleiman puts the value of the drug abuser’s life over all the rest of us?
If I’m a family member of Kathryn Johnston or Tarika Wilson or Rachel Hoffman or Cheye Calvo or those dead journalists in Mexico or the thousands dead in Thailand…, well, you know, I wouldn’t give a fuck how many more stupid people addicted themselves to cocaine. I’d say fine, legalize it and regulate it so they hurt as few others as possible and give me my family back.
Kleiman continues….

And, speaking of honesty, Nadelmann refers to “500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations.” Really? How many of the dealers now in prison (most of the people in prison for drug offenses are incarcerated for dealing, not simple possession) were armed? How many actually used violence in the course of their business? How many of those in prison for possession actually have long records of predatory crime? (Hint: the average drug-possession inmate has more burglaries in his criminal history than the average burglary inmate.) The fact that violence isn’t part of the definition of drug offenses doesn’t mean that drug traffickers as a class are “non-violent.” The list of crimes compiled by those spared prison terms under California’s Prop. 36 ÷ including not a few homicides ÷ is rather impressive.

Ah, Nadelmann is dishonest for referring to “500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations” even though that is true. Kleiman wants Nadelmann to interview each of the 500,000 people incarcerated for nonviolent drug-law violations and find out if they were, at any time, violent. And then reduce the number of nonviolent drug-law violations event though they would still be “nonviolent drug-law violations.” Apparently, we should arrest people not for the crimes they commit, but for the crimes we didn’t catch them for. In other words, instead of arresting burglars, we should arrest drug offenders because they’re probably burglars. Unbelievable.

As to substituting taxation and regulation for prohibition, those “strict controls” are themselves prohibitions: it is prohibited to sell untaxed cigarettes, or to sell alcohol to those under 21.

Really? You’re going to go there? Really?
Talk about intellectually dishonest — this one really takes the cake. Gee, if we’re going to define prohibition that way then drinking alcohol wasn’t prohibited during prohibition. So what do we call it?
How far down must he go to attempt such stupid semantic tricks?
OK, for the really dense out there, here’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about eliminating criminal prohibition such that a responsible adult would be able to, in some transparent way, legally obtain and consume drugs, although there may be regulations in terms of time, place, and manner, and taxes may be charged, and these regulations may be different for different drugs.
But Kleiman continues…

And those prohibitions, just like categorical prohibitions on selling or possessing a particular drug, invite evasion and require enforcement. Tobacco smuggling is reported to be a major source of terrorist finance in Europe.

Again, intellectually dishonest. Badly so. To equate the policing of grey market sales tax evasion on legal products with the violent worldwide black market on illicit drugs is not just dishonest, it is insulting.
And so, we see what Kleiman wants:

That’s the honest debate we ought to be having: just what should we permit and what should we prohibit, and how should we go about enforcing those prohibitions, to steer between the Scylla of drug abuse and the Charybdis of prohibition side-effects?

It’s not an honest debate he wants. He wants a debate with legalization off the table. He wants a debate between prohibition and prohibition.
And that’s not honest. It’s insulting and contemptuous. And the world isn’t putting up with this crap much longer. If Kleiman and RAND and the others aren’t willing to be honest with themselves, nobody else is going to listen to them.
Update: He just gets weirder.
Now, in his blistering critique of Walters (made confusing by Mark’s insistance on promoting his own pet causes in the middle of it), Kleiman finds more unsupported ways to attack Nadelmann (and all drug policy reformers)

Walters and Nadelmann are like a pair of aging vaudeville comedians, still whacking away at each other with their slapsticks long after everyone in the audience has gotten bored with them. […]
The arguments for the drug war and for “an end to prohibition” are symmetrically nonsensical, only with opposite signs: rather like a particle and its anti-particle. Sadly, there’s a difference; I see no hope that the “drug war” and “drug policy reform” might someday meet and disappear in a flash of photons.

Cute. Geeky. Meaningless. It’s the only way he ever addresses alternatives to prohibition – by ridiculing and dismissing without reason, and without actually ever addressing them. More intellectual dishonesty.

Afghanistan – just another one of those prohibitionist success stories

We keep hearing from the drug warriors that the war is going great, with disasters like Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan held up as examples of success. Isn’t there some kind of psychiatric term for a complete disconnect from reality?
Danny K has an excellent post over at Transform: Afghan Opium and the EmperorČs New Clothes about a presentation he attended featuring Antonio Maria Costa Executive Director UNODC and Bill Rammell, Minister of State Foreign and Commonwealth Office (UK).

Their headline was the 20% reduction in opium cultivation which they welcomed (albeit cautiously) as evidence of new found success of their respective interventions in the region. Opium production, by the way is only down 6% (as yields per acre cultivated have risen).
The statistical annex on world drug prices and purity from the World Drug Report 2008, shows precisely how badly they are really doing – even by their own standards. It is now eight years after the Allied troops overthrew the Taleban and effectively took control of the country with one of the key aims being the eradication of the opium crop, and things really aren’t going well given the billions thrown at the sprawling military-led anti-opium enterprise since 2001.

That’s right, in our success, we’ve managed to increase opium production to more than twice the pre-2001 levels. We’ve done so well that the opium supply in Afghanistan is now significantly higher than world-wide demand, and large quantities are being stockpiled to keep the price from dropping.
Danny and Steve at Transform tried to pin Rammell and Costa down in the questioning, but the drug war cheerleaders failed to actually answer the questions (of course).
The whole post is really worth reading, but I want to highlight another passage from Danny that resonates (It continually bothers me how little attention is paid to basic economic laws).

Prohibition is what makes an intrinsically low value commodity like opium more profitable than any other agricultural option for Afghanistan’s mostly impoverished farmers. It is economic alchemy, whereby plants are transmuted into commodities worth literally more than their weight in gold. Even if supply side interdiction was more effective (and you try and eradicate 1500+ square kilometers of poppy fields scattered over an area the size of Western Europe, every year, forever) the effect would be be to push up the price, that in turn inevitably incentivises new entrants to the market, and new cultivation. It is an economist’s dream; the completely unregulated interplay of supply and demand, and whilst the demand driven economic imperative exists (and there’s no sign of significant change on that front) the best that can be achieved is temporary, marginal and localised supply side ‘success’. The problem may move around a bit – but it doesn’t go away.