Exit strategies for the war on drugs, part1: Framing the discussion

I am gradually of the opinion that drug-policy reform is now a sure thing, and the discussion will need to shift to alternative policies.  This is the first in a multi-part series, in which I prattle on about what comes next after the war on drugs.  This post attempts to formulate a useful basis for the discussion of the subject.

The Guardian has an excellent article: Prohibition’s failed. Time for a new drugs policy. The first line sums it up perfectly “http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/06/editorial-drugs-policy-latin-america”.

It’s clear that the debate now needs to be about what comes next.   We’ve created a stupid war against the citizenry our own country.  It’s completely fucking up our civil liberties, and in fact the entire premise is completely unconstitutional. Argentina’s government has realized this, and if we lived in a healthier democracy, we would have figured out the same thing by now. The good news is we seem to be getting there, so the time for figuring out an exit strategy would seem to be now.

The issues aren’t simple. We have a monstrous police-state machinery in place. We have to pull out the troops and integrate them back into society, and provide them with counselling to reintegrate them into normal society. While this should be an easy sell, as there is a peace-dividend (reduced spending on law-enforcement and prisons, improved civil liberties, reduced crime…) the drug-warriors don’t want to give up sucking at the government teat, and form a powerful lobby. The most difficult question of course is “okay, prohibition doesn’t work, what now?”.

Unfortunately, the people who should be working on this are still too afraid to admit prohibition has failed.  While they get up to speed, the most productive discussions in this arena are taking place online, in in the periphery of other discussions. I’d like to discuss the issue more directly.


So, let’s identify some (hopefully) uncontroversial goals, by which we can judge whether a drug policy is working or not.

  • minimize addiction rates.
  • minimize overdose deaths.
  • protect children and uninformed consumers.
  • minimize crime (e.g. junkies stealing to get their ‘fix’)

There are other effects which are more difficult to quantify, such as health impacts (cancer and such) and effects on productivity. While these are worth considering, I think it’s a reasonable approach to consider them second-order effects. Once we have a policy which optimizes the easily measured first-order effects, we can worry about the second order ones. The key thing to keep in mind here is prohibition is a nightmarish failure, regardless of which effects you consider. It doesn’t accomplish any of the desired effects. The results of prohibition are so disastrously bad, that complete deregulation might end up working just as well, without the enormous cost (socially and economically) of funding the war.

An error the drug warriors make is framing the discussion in terms of “zero-tolerance”.   They want to completely eliminate all drug use.  What the last 100 years has shown is that that won’t happen. You can keep spending more money, you can keep use the constitution as toilet paper after shitting on people’s civil rights, you can get more and more violent and intolerant, you can impose increasingly draconian laws, and people will still use drugs. The figures are there.  It takes enormous cognitive dissonance to deny them, so let’s stop doing

There remains of course the question of how much we are willing to pay to achieve those goals. I suspect that the people who are so willing to spend billions on the drug war, will be less willing to spend the same billions on counselling, care, rehabilitation, education, and maintenance programs. Fortunately, the drug war has been so damned expensive, anything we come up with likely be much more effective at a greatly reduced financial cost.  This will allow us to frame all such harm reduction spending in terms of savings over the prohibitionist approach.

Having identified a set of goals which I hope we can all agree on, let us consider what will be needed to implement a sane drug policy.  It’s my conviction that a good drug policy will involve the following components.

  1. Rational evaluation of drug harm.
  2. Honest drug education.
  3. Honest drug scheduling (a rational classification system).
  4. A sane handling of the respective classes of drugs.
  5. Reality based assessment of policy effects.
  6. More power to states and communities for deciding drug policies.

Each of these points is non-trivial, and will require some discussion.  Thus they will be the subject of future posts.

Some might disagree with necessity of a drug scheduling system at all, and would advocate regulating all drugs like we do alcohol.  While I see some merits to such an extremely libratarian approach,  I would argue against pursuing such a goal for the following reasons:  It’s unrealistic in today’s political climate, it’s too rapid and extreme a change, and I suspect such a policy might be nearly as harmful as the current policy.  If it’s not clear to me, it’s going to be extremely unpalatable for the average citizen.

Keeping the classification system allows to handle the approach in a more reasonable and rationed manner.  We can agree to pursue a policy that accomplished the stated goals, and analyse each drug case by case, based on a rational assessment of its relative harm, made by qualified medical researchers. It also allows us to separate the questions “do we need drug policy reform”, and “what is a good drug policy for drug X”.  The answer to the former question is simple, the answer to the latter is, in some cases, rather difficult.  For example, I am torn on what constitutes a good policy for Heroin or Crack (I do know that current American policies are the wrong answer, but I’m not sure heroin and crack bars are the right answer).

Conclusion and caveats:

To successfully advocate for drug policy reform, I think keeping the above goals in mind is extremely useful.  It provides a concrete, uncontroversial framework for evaluating the failure of current policy, and provides some useful indications for steps in a positive direction.  There may be additional goals which are useful to bring into the discussion, but in the terrible situation we currently find ourselves in, we should strive to work toward unifying, uncontroversial goals.  Once these are acheived, we can open up more controversial, difficult discussions, such as “what right does the government have telling me what I can put in my body anyway”, or the ethical merits of a drug-free lifestyle versus the spiritual benefits of psychotropic drugs.

2 thoughts on “Exit strategies for the war on drugs, part1: Framing the discussion

  1. Excellent points! This is exactly the kind of planning we need to combat all the LEO propaganda and realize concrete changes to this disastrous social policy. However, our arguments will not be taken seriously if they are filled with spelling/grammatical errors and cursing.

  2. You’re entitled to your point of view of course. Regarding the colourful language, I think it’s a question one’s intended audience. This is a Blog who’s purpose is primarily the venting of my own thoughts. The intended audience of this post is people who are in principle against prohibition, and thinking about alternatives. So it was my opinion that a little strong language peppered here and there made the post a little less dry, a little less academic, a little more accessible to the general public.

    As for the errors, well, if I was publishing in a refereed journal, or some other forum with high expectations, I’d take more time to proof-read. As it is, this post is one I’d mulled on and edited and start-stopped for several weeks. I finally decided “oh hell, just post it, and fix things later if necessary”. I try to make a post a week, regardless of whether the post meets my standards or not. I’m essentially following the advice of Ira Glass here. Sometimes it’s better to crank out imperfect shit from time to time, and eventually the quality of your work will catch up to your inner critic. Otherwise you wind up getting frozen in unproductivity, and you have nothing better to do but go around griping about what other people are doing. It’s similar to playing guitar: It’s better to keep the beat and screw up the chords, than to make the chords perfect and screw up the beat. It’s a balancing act… you have to slow the beat to the point where you can learn at that pace, and gradually your chord changing becomes smooth enough you can increase the beat a bit.

    Since the original posting of the article I’ve made a couple of minor edits to correct a few typos. If you see any remaining, please let me know, and I’ll fix them. As for the profanity, I’m leaving it in on general principle. If anyone ever wants to publish the article in a more professional forum, I’ll be happy to edit it for that intent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.