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November 2010
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Opposing prohibition is not designed to be a simple solution to the drug problem

It is, however, a simple solution to the drug prohibition problem.

Mark Kleiman has an interesting post: On caffeine-alcohol mixes. Not surprisingly, he’s in favor of a federal ban on such drinks. Also, not surprisingly, I don’t support such a ban. I’m in favor of considering studies, regulating, providing warnings, and providing appropriate limitations to use, but, while I don’t particularly care much about alcohol-caffeine mixes, bans don’t provide an increased societal “good” over regulation, and public policy generated as the result of public hysteria is the worst kind of public policy.

Mark used this particular ban to make a broader point about prohibition in general.

He made some good and appropriate points about the nature of drug use and prohibition…

4. Fighting drug abuse by reducing availability always has costs: loss of liberty, loss of the benefits of non-abusive drug-taking, and sometimes illicit markets and the need for enforcement. Good policy balances those control costs against the costs of abuse, looking for a system that minimizes total harm.

… but then concluded erroneously:

Consequently, anyone offering a simple “solution” to the drug abuse problem, in the form of maximum controls to produce a “drug-free society” or eliminating prohibitions in favor of “taxation and reguation” or “prevention and treatment” is peddling snake-oil. The costs of drug abuse, and the costs of drug abuse control measures, are both real and inevitable, and the grown-up approach requires facing the tradeoffs squarely rather than pretending they don’t exist.

Ah, yes, the both-sides-are-wrong meme shows up again. In Mark’s mind, people who are in favor of “eliminating prohibitions in favor of ‘taxation and regulation’ or ‘prevention and treatment'” are claiming to give a simple solution to the drug abuse problem, and therefore have not considered facing the tradeoffs. Mark is ignoring the entire basis of the legalization argument in order to pull this sleight of hand.

I like to turn to the quote from LEAP’s Peter Christ

Drug legalization is not to be construed as an approach to our drug problem. Drug legalization is about our crime and violence problem. Once we legalize drugs, we gotta then buckle down and start dealing with our drug problem.

Of course I’d add a list of about 20 more things after “crime and violence,” including corruption, over-incarceration, lost rights, destruction of families, bad foreign policy, etc., etc.

In comments over at The Reality-Based Community, Daksya does a good job of pointing out the problem with Kleiman’s argument, but it appears to go completely over the heads of the folks there, as nobody addresses it:

Consequently, anyone offering a simple “solution” to the drug abuse problem, … or eliminating prohibitions in favor of “taxation and reguation” … the grown-up approach requires facing the tradeoffs squarely rather than pretending they don’t exist.

At the base of drug policy, there is a binary choice to be made, either prohibition or accommodation. The prohibition can be tempered with some judicious leeway and accommodation can be constrained by some prudent barriers, but essentially, there are only two modes and one must be adopted. One of the fundamental deficits of prohibition is that, being an absolutist policy, it allows no room for engaging and developing a considered attitude towards its object, thus locking the policy ‘in’. Any attenuation of its instruments have to be defended in roundabout ways, and can’t be set appropriately given the rhetorical and/or ideological surface commitments.

Nice job, Daksya. Let me try to put it another way…

The “grown-up” approach of “facing tradeoffs squarely” doesn’t in any way require keeping prohibition, particularly if prohibition doesn’t limit the total overall harm to society any more than appropriate regulation does. And by any reasonable measurement, it doesn’t.

In a post-prohibition model, it is actually quite possible to face the tradeoffs and provide the best harm reduction model for each drug (recognizing the differences between drugs). Mandatory reading in this area: Transform’s After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation

In fact, it takes some major unsupported assumptions to believe that you can be a grown-up and face tradeoffs squarely while keeping prohibition as basis for your drug policy model.

Let’s take a look at total harm.

Under prohibition, you have:

  • Prohibition Harm (including crime, violence, corruption, incarceration, destruction of families, infringement on rights, harm to people who use drugs responsibly, interference with medical needs, foreign policy disasters, great expense, etc.)
  • — PLUS —

  • Drug Abuse Harm (including overdose, health costs, harm to others by abusers, etc. – obviously this is part of the harms under prohibition since drug abuse exists under prohibition)
  • –EQUALS —

  • Total harms under prohibition

Now, let’s take a look at total harms under regulation

  • Existing Drug Abuse Harm (this, for ease of simplifying equations, is the same as the line item under prohibition)
  • –MINUS–

  • Harm Reduction Value to Drug Abusers from Regulation (this is a real identifiable value from such things as regulated dosages reducing overdoses and drug poisonings, education reducing abuse (as with tobacco), reducing the stigma involved in getting help, etc.)
  • –PLUS–

  • (The harms resulting from a completely uncertain change in the rate of drug abuse as a result of legalization) – as mitigated by the Harm Reduction Value above. This refers to the notion that drug abuse (and not just use) will increase significantly with legalization, regardless of the regulation approach. It is a notion that is fervently believed by people like Mark Kleiman, but not supported by existing models (ie, Portugal. Those models are necessarily flawed, since no real legalization laboratory has been allowed, but on the other hand, the belief in significantly increased abuse appears to be mostly a matter of faith. There are also those who believe that there will be no significant increase in drug abuse under regulation.
  • –EQUALS–

  • Total harms under regulation

When you simplify the equations, it’s pretty clear:

For prohibition to be even an option in a policy that in a grown-up way compares trade-offs in harms to society and individuals, the unknown and unsupported “increase” in drug abuse harm, minus the harm reduction values of regulation to all drug abuse, must be greater than the very well known and established harms of prohibition.

With each drug out there, it is quite possible to craft a public policy of regulation that reduces the overall harm to society below what exists under prohibition. Therefore, there is no reason for us to consider prohibition as a viable tool in the crafting of drug policy.

Note, this shows that prohibition is not viable in a simple harm cost comparison. This doesn’t even include such additional factors as the basic immorality of prohibition as policy.

The argument might be made that prohibition can somehow be changed in such a way that it can exist without having great harm, but no such prohibition scheme has been demonstrated. The fact is that the most harmful aspects of prohibition have to do with its very basic nature (the creation of a black market) and are unlikely to be mitigated significantly by tinkering with sentencing reform.

It is not the legalizers who are peddling snake-oil. The prohibitionists are selling the quack medicine. In fact, what they are selling is poison — a concoction that fails to address the disease while killing the patient in other ways.

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54 comments to Opposing prohibition is not designed to be a simple solution to the drug problem

  • darkcycle

    Dun, buddy, I was pointing out that the “ban” on over 190 proof spirits was no ban a ‘tall. That it is an absurd ban should be a given.Just like the “ban” on nitrous oxide….ever heard of ‘whippits’? No. A ban is an outright exclusion from a legal market. Marijuana is banned. No other drug that occurs in nature is subject to a total ban, only pot. Opium? buy poppy seeds at your local nusery or use one of the many phamaceutical opioids, perfectly legally. Cocaine? derivatives that won’t get you high are available OTC. Even LSD and MDMA is available commercially, just restricted (or regulated) to legitimate research purposes.
    Pot is exceptional in that is banned from seed to finished product, and yes, research is banned, even regulation that would place some aspects of this plant into the domain where humans could legally interact with it is banned. That is a ban….everthing else is just regulation.

  • Duncan20903

    Gosh, I used to so enjoy whippeds (pronounced whip eds. we just spell it differently…OK, I looked it up in the dictionary. No definitions returned but your spelling returned two ads for NO2 & and NO2 paraphernalia and my spelling didn’t so from now on I use whippits. It is in the Urban Dictionary with your spelling. That’s the story of my life, often wrong but never in doubt.

    I thought I was concurring with your proffer by pointing out that there’s no reason on Earth to “ban” 190 proof liquor.

    I did just get a flashback to a time when a few of my chums and I were doing the hippie crack. The cracker got totally frozen and refused to discharge any more gas even though I’d just reloaded it with a new cartridge. Intent on fixing the problem I unscrewed the cracker. Well the damn thing had in fact broken the seal and the cartridge blew out at bullet velocity. Man that was an awesome head rush. It went straight through two layers of dry wall and then embedded itself in the far wall of the next room. No doubt we were lucky no one was sitting in its trajectory. Hey, but it’s totally legal, therefore it must be sanctioned and encouraged by the government.

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