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 â€œsolutionâ€ to the drug abuse problem, in the form of maximum controls to produce a â€œdrug-free societyâ€ or eliminating prohibitions in favor of â€œtaxation and reguationâ€ or â€œprevention and treatmentâ€ 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 donâ€™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 â€œsolutionâ€ to the drug abuse problem, â€¦ or eliminating prohibitions in favor of â€œtaxation and reguationâ€ â€¦ the grown-up approach requires facing the tradeoffs squarely rather than pretending they donâ€™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 â€˜inâ€™. Any attenuation of its instruments have to be defended in roundabout ways, and canâ€™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.)
- 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)
- Total harms under prohibition
— PLUS —
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)
- 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.)
- (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.
- 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 â€” a concoction that fails to address the disease while killing the patient in other ways.