Triage in the Drug War (updated)

Mark A.R. Kleiman has an excellent OpEd in The American Interest: Triage in the Drug War

In particular, Kleiman’s analysis of the falsehoods and fallacies of the drug war really hits the mark.

Certainly, he has a more optimistic view of the potential uses of prohibition in certain circumstances than I, but in an article discussing short-term triage, that’s OK – it’s not all going to come down at once anyway. As far as his solutions, the HOPE program appears to be a good one and his “big stick” approach to reducing the violence of the most violent drug trafficking organizations might work (although I fear that without an accompanying “carrot” it’s likely to get bogged down).

As some of you know, Mark and I have had some blistering differences over the years regarding drug policy, but I’ve always felt that when it comes to analyzing the problems with prohibition, he really does understand.

Update: It seems the consensus is that the readers are much less willing to give Kleiman any props for what he wrote in this OpEd.

Of course Mark Kleiman is still a prohibitionist apologist and he has a drug policy blind spot the size of Texas when it comes to his fear of cocaine. That hasn’t changed, nor do I expect it to change in the near future. His opinions, however, are widely respected in certain circles and it is nice to see him publicly dismantling core drug warrior arguments, particularly without the usual obligatory unsupported plague-on-both-your-houses/ but-the-legalizers-are-just-as-bad statement.

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28 Responses to Triage in the Drug War (updated)

  1. NowThere'sTwoOfThem says:

    No wonder there’s no feedback allowed; he appears to be using the same lame argument in support of prohibition as Jack Marshall:

    “Whether prohibition is actually justified for any given drug depends on the risks of the drug, how deeply socially embedded its use has become, and the state’s capacity to enforce it. (In my view, the answer is “no” for alcohol, but “yes” for cocaine.)

    I stopped reading after that!

  2. Cold Blooded says:

    That’s a really strange article. He’s created a blueprint for dismantling individual criminal organizations that relies on quantifying a whole slew of unknown and possibly unknowable elements. It also assumes a level of coordination between agencies in the U.S. and Mexico that is probably impossible, and even if you implemented this plan, would you be confident that it would last past the next administration? The thing is: he’s aware of all the weaknesses in this plan. The ultimate goal seems to be to reduce violence associated with drug trafficking, not actual drug use. If that’s the goal then why not cut the Gordian knot by removing the profit motive from drug trafficking in the first place? Even if you pay more in treatment for addicts, that’s probably less costly than making Northern Mexico a battlefield.

  3. darkcycle says:

    Never did like Kleiman.

    • NowThere'sTwoOfThem says:

      “The problem is that the people with the most ridiculous ideas are always the people who are most certain of them.” – Bill Maher

  4. Dante says:

    From the article: (comments mine)
    “Now, there are at least five unsupported assumptions behind this strategy:

    That the organizations can control the violence of their members; (no way)

    That the Mexican government can develop a process that would accurately target the most violent group; (no way)

    That the U.S. government knows enough about trafficking patterns to be able to attack specifically the distributors of the target group’s drugs; (are you freakin’ kidding me?)

    That the DTOs wouldn’t, or couldn’t, strike back with random violence against officials and citizens in Mexico and the United States; and (who knows, but I bet they would strike back at first)

    That the result would not be a fragmentation leading to still higher violence levels, at least in the short run.
    (still higher violence levels – isn’t the whole point to LOWER violence levels?)

    Kleiman sinks his own boat. The only answer is the same as alcohol prohibition: end it now.

  5. TrebleBass says:

    So it would be legal for the least violent dtos to sell drugs? Why not just legalize drugs, then?

    I’ve heard Kleiman say before that one of the problems with legalization is advertising. Why not just target the groups that use advertising (in other words, regulation)? If it can be done with cigarrettes, it can be done with marijuana and most definitely with any other drug.

    As for the users, just do harm reduction. I think people underestimate the capacity of harm reduction to, not just reduce harm, but even help achieve sobriety in those who are using and prevention in those who are not.

    The HOPE program could be used under legalization too for those drug users who commit minor crimes. (even today, for example, one of the conditions for probation/parole can be that people not drink alcohol).

  6. I came away from the article extremely skeptical of the solutions put forward to eradicate the most violent cartels. Despite the fact that government is hardly ever the benevolent tool liberals wish it to be, they incessantly try and try again, never seeming to realize that government is highly dysfunctional in most everything it does. I mean, if government has a total monopoly on mail delivery services and keeps loosing billions of dollars every year, how is government supposed to determine which violent cartels sell drugs to middle men in the United States? Our government didn’t even know the ATF was running guns to cartels in Mexico or that Iraq is comprised of three different types of muslims. Just like the way government cant ‘plan’ the real economy, black market economies are not concentrated, finite things that can be rationally understood. Those engaged in under ground markets act just like those who engage in the legitimate economy. The knowledge problem F.A. Hayek attributes to economic planners, is equally relevant to black market economies. Black market actors rely on “the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” There’s no large meeting of drug manufactures and sellers coordinating everything they do.

    There’s also a displacement effect in this proposed effort. If government stops violent cartel X from delivering to seller Y in America, cartel X will just find someone else to sell its drugs to in the U.S. And on and on it goes. If cartel X is eliminated, cartel Z will just step in. Its all about the money. Prohibition creates the massive profits for cartels. Eliminating the black market for drugs will eliminate 90% of the cartels and 90% of the cartel related violence. By legalizing drugs, the Mexican government can actually focus on stopping non-drug related violent crimes these cartels are involved in.

  7. kaptinemo says:

    Drug prohibition has always been a Rube Goldberg machine that has never worked, not even once. But the prohibs keep thinking if we tweak it here, adjust that knob, there, attach a new bell or whistle, and oh, yes, throw lots more money at it, we’ll someday get it running like a top.

    You cannot make apple pies using mud. You cannot fly by flapping your arms. And you cannot achieve drug prohibition when there is a demand for drugs. All you can do is ameliorate the dangers of a black market by eliminating it. The whole damned unworkable device needs to be sent to History’s boneyard, to be interred alongside its’ brother, alcohol Prohibition, and let the two rest in peace.

    • claygooding says:

      I think,like my last CB radio,,it has been over-tweaked and is shorting out inside its own organizations,,watching for these budget hearings is killing me.

      Apparently the new budget called for 60% cuts to Nicaragua this year,,that is why the President “threatened” legalization,,I think he was playing poker with his threat.

    • Chris says:

      This is the impression I got from reading this article. First it was somewhat interesting that someone had went through and enumerated all of these tasks to accomplish dismantling DTOs, but it’s all pointless when there is an obvious solution that is proven to alleviate the violence called legalization. It’s pointless.

    • Freeman says:

      Drug prohibition has always been a Rube Goldberg machine that has never worked, not even once.

      True that. Clear back to one of our most ancient parables, the story of Genesis, you have a population of two, a forbidden tree, an all-seeing Almighty God threatening banishment and death, and 0% compliance. If that wasn’t effective prohibition, what makes us think such a thing is even possible?

  8. Peter says:

    ot alert

    Mi primary is on tuesday and i have seen very few yard signs out. Those that I have seen have surprisingly been for Ron Paul. I’ve also taken several $5 and $10 bills with “Ron Paul for president” stamped on them. Yet the media only seem to talk about Mitt and Shit (Santorum)

    • claygooding says:

      MSM will not support Ron Paul if he takes the lead and will report that a recount is being called for.

    • Chris says:

      The only political yard sign I can recall seeing this year was one for Ron Paul – with the 2008 part covered up.

  9. claygooding says:

    Paul has a very good article in a Hawaii paper:

    Study: Passage Of Medical Marijuana Laws Correlated With Fewer Suicides

    The enactment of statewide laws allowing for the limited use of cannabis therapeutically is associated with reduced instances of suicide, according to a discussion paper published recently by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany.

    Suicide rates in mmj states are down,,,traffic fatalities are down in mmj states,,unfortunately Federal expenditure on marijuana prohibition is way up.

  10. Francis says:

    Kap, it’s worse than Rube Goldberg. A Rube Goldberg machine is presumably capable of performing its intended function, albeit in a needlessly complicated fashion. This is the equivalent of a Rube Goldberg attempt at a perpetual motion machine. It cannot succeed. You will NEVER get rid of the violence that surrounds prohibition because prohibition IS violence. And it will ALWAYS generate reactive violence.

    Kleiman almost gets it:

    The opposite is more often the case; greater enforcement (unless specifically targeted at the most violent dealers) tends to create incentives for more violence, because violence is one way that drug dealers protect themselves from enforcement.

    “Enforcement” (emphasis on the “force”) is violence. And dealers do sometimes defend themselves from that violence by using violence of their own, but that’s not the primary way the drug war fuels violence. It’s the unenforceability of contracts; it’s the inability of sellers to use the courts or the police to challenge intimidation; and it’s the huge potential black-market profits that fuel violence. Framed in its best light, Kleiman’s recommendation is that we pour less gasoline on the house fire that we started. That would certainly be an improvement. But how about we just put the gasoline away instead?

  11. claygooding says:

    American Weed on Natgeo at 9pm central,,new weed series starts tonight,,rerun at 11pm central

  12. MaineGeezer says:

    He doesn’t quite get it that Prohibition Doesn’t Work. He would keep prohibition for cocaine and similar drugs, apparently with the belief that prohibition — done properly — can keep people from using drugs. As Peter Christ of LEAP ( puts it: “What drugs do you want sold on the streets of your city? Keep those illegal.”

    Far better is the Swiss model of clinics where heroin addicts can get free (if they are too poor to pay for it) heroin. At the clinics they also get counseling. The author is probably correct that heroin needs to be under some kind of control. The Swiss provide that control through their clinic system.

    The Swiss have been doing this for 15 years. LEAP gives a bunch of statistics about its success: crime is down 60%, new addictions are down 82% (if my memory is reliable), there hasn’t been an overdose death in 15 years, and more addicts are quitting because they get the counseling they need and because for the first time their lives are stabilized and they can think about something besides how they will get their next fix.

    There are also virtually no illegal heroin dealers in Switzerland. There is no money in it. Who can compete with free? The only reason heroin can have as much as a 17,000% profit margin (that number from Jack Cole of LEAP) is its illegality. That profit margin is also why there will never be a shortage of drug dealers as long as there is drug prohibition.

    • strayan says:

      The author is probably correct that heroin needs to be under some kind of control.

      Of course all products, foods, medicines and other substances sold for human consumption need to be under some control. The only people who would disagree with this statement are prohibitionists.

      Pure diamorpohine hydrochloride should be available to medical men and diluted formulations should be sold as pharmacist only products. If you want to use either of these products for recreational purposes you should need a licence of some sort; a prescription is basically a temporary licence to use the drug for medicinal reasons. There should be a different class of licence for people who want to use it recreationally.

  13. Emma says:

    Pete, I think you are being too nice to Kleiman. Prohibitionists are often able to give a detailed critique of the drug war, that shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not about getting them to “understand”!

    The drug war is increasingly being acknowledged as uneconomical and inhumane (enormous costs and full prisons in the US, 40000 dead in Mexico, etc). In a cost-benefit analysis, drug prohibition has been a disaster, and legal regulation is the best policy alternative. The prohibitionists are now on the defensive. Now is the time to keep advocating for peace in the drug war.

    Kleiman is pushing a new intellectual defense of prohibition, providing new words and strategies that will be used while continuing to do basically the same thing. This is very dangerous.

    • Francis says:

      Kleiman response: “No, you see, I’m proposing ‘smart enforcement.’ It’ll be different this time. Really.”

  14. darkcycle says:

    Pete, Kleimann seems interested in peddling “prohibition-lite”. He seems very concerned with hanging onto the last vestiges of criminalization. That was my take when I first began confronting this problem. For many many years, I firmly belived that pot should be decriminalized, and the “hard” drugs should remain illegal. In the course of looking at the problem, and hard thinking as I worked with clients in the criminal justice system, youth population and at risk populations, I began to come to the shocking realization that the problem really was the criminalization of immutable human behavior, and that legalization could only have the positive effect of getting the courts and the police off the backs of my clients, allowing them to heal instead of heaping injury upon injury endlessly. Kleimann has been round those blocks more than I have, and he steadfastly refuses to learn, it seems, even absorb new information.
    It’s like Kevin Sabet, he tries to paint his position as middle ground, but he knows it’s not. Kleimann thinks there actually IS a middle ground that might, somehow, maybe work (or at least be less-worse than where we are now). May I say it? ?… BOLLOCKS.

  15. Hanging Out says:

    This is why I hardly ever read this site. Pete branches out and tries to connect with someone who is clearly smart, and his readers bully him into submission. I don’t always agree with Kleuiman but at least he is trying to think, and you are too Pete. Too bad the people above are against that.

    • darkcycle says:

      You obviously don’t spend alot of time here reading the posters you deride above. You have a problem with either of my comments? The first is a personal impression, the second a substantive critique, albeit brief. Say something salient.

  16. Freeman says:

    I comment regularly on Professor Kleiman’s blog. He’s starkly dismissive of any legalization argument, and doesn’t seem interested in debating it on merits beyond his stock reply: Yes, you could legalize cocaine. That would reduce drug-dealing violene in Mexico. But there’s no plausible argument that it wouldn’t massively increase cocaine abuse, in both countries. Take your choice. But don’t pretend that legalization is a freebie. It ain’t.

    My recent response: I don’t know anyone who thinks legalization is a free lunch. You are correct in saying that it trades one problem for another. We did that with alcohol. I don’t know anyone who would prefer to trade that one back. I think the consensus is that we have the second problem in either case, perhaps to different degrees (depending on the prohibited intoxicant), and the first problem does far more damage to society than it prevents. There ain’t no free lunch, and prohibition certainly isn’t free either.

    …The ’80′s epidemic of “massively increase[d] cocaine abuse” happened despite prohibition, which did little to prevent, mitigate, control, reduce, or end it. And let’s not forget that it wasn’t just an epidemic of massive abuse, but of massive violence as well. What ended the ’80′s epidemic was the collective realization of the horrible effects of addiction — society learned from the mistakes. Cocaine is still easily and relatively cheaply acquired by those who want it despite prohibition, but we are no longer seeing abuse on such a massive scale, or anywhere near it. Our experience is that cultural factors, to a far greater degree than legal status, drives cocaine abuse. There’s your argument, you can decide to what degree you think it is “plausible”, but I would say that our collective first-hand experience carries a fair amount of plausibility.

    No attempt at rebuttal, though he did post a comment in response to someone else that annoyed him hours after I posted the above.
    Earlier today I responded to another commenter:

    …Mark is rightly concerned [] in his opposition to regulated legalization. It would be very difficult to argue that legalization wouldn’t have an undesired effect on cultural attitudes toward drugs, and people who haven’t experienced the consequences of drug abuse would be very vulnerable to any cultural message that drug use has been legitimized. There are no easy answers. Alcohol re-legalization didn’t solve our alcohol-related problems — far from it. My opposition to prohibition stems from the observation that it has little effect on drug abuse, while leaving a vacuum for the violent, unregulated black market to fill. The “cure” is ineffective, and the side-effects are as bad as the “disease”, or worse. That’s also why I reject decriminalization, because it leaves the black market intact. Mark may be correct, at least to a point, in arguing that “there’s no plausible argument that it wouldn’t massively increase cocaine abuse”, but his argument fails on the same point, as our experience shows that there’s no plausible argument that prohibition has the power to prevent massive increases in drug abuse. Drug abuse is rampant in our prisons, how can it be controlled through enforcement in our “free” society?

    It’s probably been too long since the OP to expect that he might even read it (for all I know he skips right over all my posts, rolling his eyes, because he’s quite familiar with my position on the subject by now), but I know better than to expect much of a response in any case. He’s plugged into the government drug policy apparatus and doesn’t seem interested in expending effort discussing policies he doesn’t think will fly in those circles. Can’t say that I blame him, but it would be nice to see someone with his connections make a reasoned pitch for regulated legalization, education, and treatment instead of yet another complicated and expensive prohibition policy that he concedes in his essay is futile for that purpose:

    Enforcement efforts should be designed to influence the way the drug business is carried out rather than attempt, futilely, to shrink the volume of the trade.

    Now what’s the best way we know to do that? The Rube Goldberg Perpetual Motion Machine? (h/t Francis & kaptinemo)

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