More on the failure of the class of academic drug policy experts

I thought it would be a good idea to do a little follow-up on my earlier post today. As has been noted, I was pretty harsh about an article that was actually suggesting reducing the number of incarcerated drug offenders by 50%. Shouldn’t I be celebrating?
Well certainly, that would be incredible. And if I heard something like that from a politician, I’d be doing a happy dance — despite the fact that I would consider it only a partial step toward what needs to be done to reform drug policy.
The problem is that this is, once again, a “scholarly” piece from extremely intelligent, extremely well-informed academicians whose recommendations are considered to carry a certain weight by policy-makers. And once again, these “experts” have told only part of the story. When they do this, they make both the public and policy-makers operate from a position of, ultimately, ignorance. And this is traitorous to academic scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge (something I value and understand to a small degree since I work in a university).
This isn’t just one article. The willful absence of any mention of the “ending prohibition” option from academic discussions of drug policy is typical and rampant.
Take a look at other major works by Jonathan P. Caulkins and Peter Reuter. The first thing that comes to mind is their outstanding work in AEI’s “Are We Losing the War on Drugs?
An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy” (David Boyum and Peter Reuter) and RAND’s “How Goes the ‘War on Drugs’?
An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy” (Jonathan P. Caulkins, Peter H. Reuter, Martin Y. Iguchi and James Chiesa) — both of which I talked about here. At the time, despite the fantastic information and powerful indictments of current policy contained in those reports, I noted:

In both cases, the studies are grossly flawed in that they operate under the assumption, for the purposes of the study, that prohibition can be the only model. Therefore they almost completely ignore:

  • Side-effects of prohibition itself such as prohibition-fueled violence
  • The impact of other potential models, such as legalization and regulation, on their recommendations.

Or consider Mark Kleiman’s CRS Report for Congress: Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat: Causal Links and Implications for Domestic Drug Control Policy (pdf) — a report that Kleiman felt was strong: “I was somewhat better-pleased with the product than I am with my average product.”
In this report, after showing how drug trafficking can connect to terrorism (but without ever mentioning the contribution of prohibition to that connection), he goes on to (as all the academicians do so well) properly trash the current drug war efforts. He points out that all three of the conventional wisdom approaches to drug policy — increasing price, shrinking demand, reducing availability — have failed to actually… uh… work. But of course, again no mention of other options such as ending prohibition. His conclusion?

…the institutions of drug abuse control would be wise to factor the impact of their activities on the terrorist threat into their decision-making. Such a focus could
involve employing enforcement to reduce the opportunities that drug trafficking
provides to terrorist groups, and focusing the demand control effort more on the
issue of hard-core user-offenders.

In other words, just modify the failed approach slightly. No need to consider other options. And this is his report to Congress!
Why do they do this? It’s not like they’re unaware of the realities. All of them have written enough to show that they are extraordinarily knowledgeable. And their academic credentials are outstanding.

Jonathan P. Caulkins is a professor of public policy and operations research at Carnegie-Mellon University’s Qatar Campus and Heinz School of Public Policy and Management. Peter Reuter is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Department of Criminology, the University of Maryland, and codirector of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center.

Well, as some commenters have noted in the previous post, researchers are often thinking about who will fund them, and writing things that don’t agree with funders can keep you from getting paid. That may, unfortunately, be true, and if it’s simply it’s a matter of what overall topics you research, then I can accept that. However, avoiding reporting a valid answer to the question of your research simply to not offend funders is dishonest scholarship. Pure and simple.
Imagine, for example, that I was a medical researcher considering the question: “How can people avoid getting lung cancer?” but was unwilling to include quitting cigarettes as an option in my paper to avoid pissing off my tobacco company patrons. Dishonest scholarship, as is scholarship that considers the question of drug policy and notes prohibition’s failures without even bringing the drug policy option of ending prohibition.
Of course, I don’t know for sure the actual reasons behind the writing of these individuals. I suspect Kleiman’s reasons go beyond funding and into a prejudice against the notion of legalization (that, based on some of his earlier statements, may include a personal animus against some of early legalization personalities). Caulkins and Reuter? Keeping sponsors happy, I suppose. Although I bet they’d tell you that it’s more to do with political realities — that there’s no point bringing up options that people are unwilling to consider politically.
And yet, these academicians have a great opportunity to lead the way in actual valuable drug policy recommendations, and not just in drug policy criticism. Sure, it can be scary out on the political edge, but that’s no reason to stop knowledge.
The motto of my university is “Gladly we learn and teach.” Maybe that’s easier for me because I’m not dependent on research grants or tenure. I just write a blog.

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