One of the major failures of public policy has been the inability to consider or craft drug policy that actually narrowly targets real problems.
Those who research policy have often pointed out a couple of verifiable facts of drug use and abuse: the vast majority of drugs are consumed by a tiny minority of individuals, and only a tiny minority of individuals are problematic drug users.
Mark Kleiman has noted that only a small minority of drug users (about 3 million) account for about 80 percent of hard drug use. This basic notion is true regardless of the drug (yes, including alcohol).
Numbers are pretty slippery things in drug policy. I’ve heard figures used regarding 1.3% of the population being addicted to drugs throughout various times in history, and I’ve heard number that are higher. Additionally, each individual drug has its own rate of dependency. Public policy also has an impact on problematic use of drugs (in some cases, prohibition increases the likelihood that abuse will occur due to lack of safety and purity standards).
Finally, it’s often difficult to define “problematic” use; national debates rage over the definition of “addiction,” for example.
Whatever the actual percentage, it’s clear that it’s a small minority overall, so for this article, I’ve arbitrarily chosen “seven-percent” for my own literary enjoyment. Use whatever number is comfortable for you.
Let’s take a moment to look at the players. First, we’ll eliminate the sado-moralists (the rabid true-believers like John Walters who care less about the actual cost to society than the enjoyment of punishing those who do things they don’t like) and the profiteers (those who care less about actual cost to society than the money or power they can get from prohibition).
The stated goal of most who advocate some kind of continuance of prohibition (either in its current state, or some “kindler, gentler” or “swifter, surer” version) is to help drug abusers and society from the ravages of drug abuse. Sounds good.
So, assuming that society has the right to impose some kind of coercive judgement or assistance onto those who abuse drugs — for their good and for the good of society (a point that is certainly not in universal agreement) — how should this occur? That is the central question of public drug policy.
One of the huge problems, of course, is that coercive drug policy has tried to deal with the perceived problem of the 7% by imposing itself on the 100%.
This is at best inefficient. It is at its core wrong. And it is usually counter-productive.
- Inefficient: Our police and courts spend way too much time dealing with the 93%, and our drug testing regimes make no distinction between the weekend pot smoker and the alcohol abuser (and, in fact, may even reward the latter).
- Wrong: Anytime you target and demonize an entire class of people for the misdeeds or problems of a subset of that group, you are crossing a serious moral line. It’s discrimination, and also a matter of fairness.
- Counter-productive: The 100% approach to coercive drug policy results in bizarre governmental actions like setting national goals of reducing the numbers of people using drugs. By definition, this can be accomplished most readily by targeting the 93% rather than the 7%.
Any policy that indiscriminately targets a majority of innocent people (from the standpoint of the core purpose of the policy) in order to reach a small minority is bad policy. Period.
Is it hard to craft a policy that only targets the problems? Well, boo-hoo, don’t complain to us about your inadequacies as a policy maker. Start looking for solutions. And to begin with, that probably means looking at targeted regulations within some kind of legalized system.
Recently, Mark A.R. Kleiman and his cohorts talked in the Wall Street Journal about the third choice they promoted, advocating an option other than “the ‘drug war’ and proposals for wholesale drug legalization.” And yet the solutions they discussed had nothing to do with the 93%.
Drug czar Kerlikowske, loving Kleiman’s way out of a “third choice,” jumped all over that and has been heavily pushing this notion of some kind of mythical policy-land where he can disavow the problems of prohibition that he continues to cause and ignore the legitimate facts related to legalization (as he must by law), through semantic games and talk about treatment instead of incarceration.
And again, nothing they do addresses the 93%.
I tweeted a question to Gil and his communications director Raphael LeMaitre:
If you’re moving toward treatment instead of incarceration, what will you do about drug users who need neither?
Transform Drug Policy also asked the ONDCP (without response, so far) about this important paper by Alex Stevens: The ethics and effectiveness of coerced treatment of people who use drugs
This takes it a step further and questions the validity of the “third way” at all, particularly when that involves coercion.
Stevens uses three categories of individuals to explore the ethics and effectiveness of coercion:
- Non-problemmatic drug users (self-explanatory)
- Dependent drug users (meet diagnostic criteria)
- Drug dependent offenders (drug dependent users who have committed other crimes)
The whole thing is worth reading. The conclusion:
This article has argued that it is very unlikely that compulsory treatment can be considered ethical for any category of person who uses drugs, outside of the â€˜exceptional, crisisâ€™ situations allowed for under the UN Office on Drugs and Crime/World Health Organization review.
It has been argued that quasi-compulsory treatment may be considered ethical (under some specific conditions) for drug dependent offenders who have committed criminal offences for whom the usual penal sanction would be more restrictive of liberty than the forms of treatment that they are offered as a constrained, quasi-compulsory choice. It has briefly reviewed research that suggests that QCT may be as effective as treatment that is entered into voluntarily. This may help individuals to reduce their drug use and offending and to improve their health, but it is unlikely to have large effects on population levels of drug use and crime.
So, there may be limited classes out there who could benefit from a program like HOPE, for example, such as Steven’s third category of drug dependent offenders, where their drug dependency is a factor in lawbreaking (other than drug laws).
But such a solution doesn’t address the real problems of prohibition, which negatively affects huge portions of the population.
And, just to be clear, it is a complete cop-out to put the blame on the user. If you were crafting a public policy that imposed sexual abstinence in order to avoid the societal damage of STD’s and unwanted pregnancies, you would be rightly ridiculed and the law ignored as a bad law. The same is true in drug policy.
It is also a cop-out to say that non-problematic users aren’t generally being sent to prison. That wouldn’t be a sufficient answer for any other discriminated group, so why should it be for this one?
If you’re so damn sure that government intervention is necessary to save society from the scourge of drug abusers, then find a policy that addresses it — don’t go after everyone.
You come up with and promote something that is fair and we’ll stop accusing you of intellectual dishonesty. Until then, most drug policy makers and advisors in the U.S. come off like a bunch of hacks with agendas to push who have nothing really to offer dealing with the big picture. The drug policy reform community (the real ones) have already come up with a policy that is fair and addresses the problem of drug abuse — it’s called “regulated legalization with treatment on demand.”
Try it on for size.
And remember, this issue of fairness is only one of the destructive aspects of prohibition.