Asking the right questions about drug policy

The recent excellent Washington Post article by Misha Glenny (The Lost War) and Robert S. Weiner’s “rebuttal” (The War Is Not Lost) has sparked some rather heated discussions about the statistics of drug use patterns, both in comments here and over at Drug Law Blog, where Robert Weiner himself responded to Alex’s fisking. Alex does a nice job responding back.

So essentially, we debate whether drug use statistics are being misused or cherry-picked, which sets of statistics are the most accurate, whether the methodology of the survey instrument is properly constructed and how much to account for changes in that methodology over time, whether the survey is capturing actual trends in illicit drug use or trends in perceptions relating to answering questions about illicit drug use.

But to me, this is all just a distraction. Oh, sure, knowing things is important and having better statistical information to draw upon for the purpose of making educated decisions is a good thing. But we’re talking about the wrong question.

The prohibitionists have framed the entire world’s drug policy solution as “We need to reduce the number of illicit drug users.” And all measurements of success or failure are addressed only to that statement. It’s a nice trick, but it’s horribly dishonest. (Note: they also occasionally use the measurements of “Look how much we seized!”, but that’s even less relevant in a non-finite supply chain.)

While I have my own concerns about the statistics of drug use, I am willing to posit that prohibition itself may have actually contributed to some reduction in the number of overall illicit drug users (primarily casual non-problematic drug users). This means, under the framing promoted by prohibitionists, that I agree that the drug war has been a “success.”

But that, of course is ridiculous.

Prohibition framing is dishonest because it promotes a problem (drug addiction, violence, destroyed children, etc.) and pairs it with a solution (reduced number of illicit drug users) that has little direct relevance to the problem.

Why don’t they come out and say “The problem is that there are too many casual illicit drug users out there, and any amount of cost is acceptable to reduce that number.”? Because people would, rightly, object.

If there are problems associated with drug use, wouldn’t the proper solution pairing be to reduce the problems associated with drug use? Ah, but that’s the goal of the harm reduction crowd, who are, for the most part, legalizers, not prohibitionists.

It is the legalizers who are doing more to fight for reducing the problems associated with drug use. Prohibitionists, on the other hand, are more interested in looking for the pony of reduced numbers of illicit drug users.

A sane and reasoned drug policy regime would start by asking the following three essential questions:

  1. What are the appropriate goals of drug policy and how can those be achieved?
  2. What are the acceptable costs (by type and quantity) for achieving specific aspects of the drug policy goals?
  3. What are the measures for determining the success of #1 and #2?

Now you certainly could simply set a goal of reducing the number of illicit drug users. Congress has done exactly that in its directives to the ONDCP. But it’s hardly an appropriate goal, since the numbers game forces government policy to try to reduce drug use by the least problematic drug use populations (the only way to get enough numbers to make proclamations like the one Weiner gives) and therefore does little to address any legitimate problems.

Clearly a much more appropriate goal would be to reduce the problems associated with drug use, and therefore the methods would have to specifically reflect that revised goal.

Now what about #2? This is a critical question, and yet it’s hardly ever addressed by anyone other than legalizers.

Let’s say that Honda (I’m just using them as an example because I just got a fabulous new Honda Fit) decided as a corporate goal to double their car sales this year. So they come up with an approach: drop the price of all their new cars in half. And eureka! It works! They sell more than twice as many cars this year. It’s a success, right? Of course not. The cost of making those cars was more than they were getting, and so the company goes bankrupt, communities all over the world lose automotive plants, people lose jobs, families go hungry, etc. No major corporation would be irresponsible enough to discuss goals without looking at the costs of achieving those goals.

But whenever the drug war is discussed by prohibitionists, it’s as though cost isn’t even part of the equation. Sure, the supply of money to fight the war is sometimes brought up, but the overall cost, which includes not only money but also a huge list of collateral damages, is not mentioned at all.

Some of the costs of prohibition include:

  • Enormous taxpayer costs in enforcement, courts, prisons
  • Fueling crime through attractive black-market profits
  • Creation of a prison/criminal class with endless job opportunities
  • Destruction of families and inner cities; welfare costs
  • Extraordinary racial implications
  • The lures to corruption among public officials
  • Loss of civil liberties and the Fourth Amendment
  • Denying young people a second chance (financial aid)
  • Escalating violence (both sides)
  • Foreign policy disasters; harming farmers in poor countries
  • Denying medicine to sick people
  • Increasing harm for those using drugs
  • Lost lives and potential

And I’m sorry, but saying “Hey, we’re developing some great ideas regarding drug courts” doesn’t even begin to cut it.

It’s important to re-emphasize here that costs are not just monetary. I’m sure some prohibitionist is going to get all outraged at this point and say “How can you crassly do a cost-benefit analysis when the lives of our children are at stake?” And it’s precisely because the lives of our children are at stake, along with our freedoms, and the integrity of law enforcement, and on and on. It is extremely irresponsible to avoid the cost-benefit analysis. If it turns out that lives are destroyed in order to reduce the number of casual pot smokers by one, what kind of lame-brained policy is that?

This leads me to the one absolutely incredible piece of blatant hypocrisy in the drug war, and that’s a comparison between the prohibitionists’ analysis of medical marijuana and their lack of meaningful analysis of the drug war.

When we say that medical marijuana is effective in reducing nausea for some cancer and AIDS patients, the drug warrior scoffs and says “That’s totally unacceptable. You must have double-blind proof of efficacy, with years of testing and verification by the FDA. We need to make sure that there’s absolutely no chance that any of these terminal cancer patients will develop bronchitis in 40 years if they smoke pot for their nausea…” etc., etc.

And yet, when it comes to drug policy, no such rigor is even contemplated. Medical marijuana is a choice by a patient with consultation with a doctor, and yet sick people supposedly can’t be allowed to take the mildest chance, while on the other hand, involuntarily imposing an extraordinarily dangerous regime on the entire population is done without consideration of cost to that population.

And if we ask about those costs — prison, corruption, black market profitability, broken families, cities, foreign policy, etc., the prohibitionists promptly stick their fingers in their ears yelling “LA, LA, LA, LA, LA” and then when we’ve finished talking, they respond: “How dare you question the war. Due to our efforts, Joe stopped using drugs. Would you rather he was an addict?”


Now let’s look at those questions again.

  1. What are the appropriate goals of drug policy and how can those be achieved?
  2. What are the acceptable costs (by type and quantity) for achieving specific aspects of the drug policy goals?
  3. What are the measures for determining the success of #1 and #2?

Unless, and until, prohibitionists (or prohibition apologists) are willing to seriously answer those questions, the legalizers and druggies have the upper hand in reasoned, educated arguments.

Even the academics and think tanks are weak in this area. When RAND Drug Policy Center and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research released their scathing (and important) assessments of the war on drugs in 2005, they seemed to at least understand that such questions might be relevant, but refused to fully address them, instead retreating primarily to the “safe” domain of drug use and prison statistics.

Just because a critical element doesn’t lend itself to easy quantification or palatable political reality doesn’t mean it can be left out of the equation.

Sure, it’s a good thing to have people analyzing MTF and NSDUH and the other survey tools to see what we can learn. But by no means can those figures represent even the beginning of a proper analysis of the appropriate goals, methods, or costs of drug policy.

[Cross-posted at Daily Kos]
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