May 18, 2007

A work in progress

The drug policy reform movement has been gaining steam for the last few years. And yet, we have failed to penetrate the mainstream discourse enough to make articles like this one, (on the front page of the NYT) about the opium trade in Afghanistan, unacceptable. Drug policy reform is not even mentioned in this article--the "model" for Afghanistan, where the drug trade is booming, is purported to be Columbia. I won't go into what's wrong with the article, as others have already done it better. I would like to talk about how we might change this mainstream attitude and make journalists and others more responsive to our arguments.

Advocating drug policy reform is a fringe position. Though I don't trust polling much, something like 85% of Americans think we should continue the war on drugs.

Why is this? First, we have some very powerful opponents. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have always found a convenient road to votes and power through the demonization of drugs and the advocating of harsher penalties for various drug offenses. Something like 70 years of nonstop propaganda has imbedded the assumptions of the drug war, and the corresponding caricatures of the drugs themselves, so deep in the American psyche it will probably take decades to remove.

Also, the drug war appeals to the American way of doing things. Like it or not, Americans (like most people) are more than willing to give up most of their liberties for some imagined security. "Just do what it takes to stamp out this illegal drug menace," we say. "These constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure are luxuries we cannot afford."

"The Constitution is not a suicide pact." What a bunch of bullshit. What fucking cowards.

And yet, we have failed to make it clear to people that these sorts of arguments are patently ridiculous and 35 years of an increasingly militaristic approach to the drug problem has produced one of the most drug-soaked societies on earth.

On the other hand, still hardly anyone gives stiff questioning to Bush or other right-wingers when they do truly ridiculous stuff. What we need is a better frame. The word frame has gotten a lot of blog-play in the last few months, particularly on the science blogs (or so I've noticed). I regard the word "frame" as simply stating your argument in such a way so that your target audience will be most likely to accept it. This might be dumbing down your argument, changing your vocabulary, etc. It is emphatically not saying anything untrue or misleading.

So when we get into this argument with lay people about the war on drugs, I think we need to remember who we're talking to. First, keep it simple. Most people are stupid and have a short attention span. Anything convoluted or arcane can be thrown out--everything but the simplest economic arguments. Any sort of civil liberties arguments can be thrown out as well (depending on your audience). If you say that people should have the right to do any drug they want everyone is just going to think you're a junkie.

I would argue like this:

The war on drugs causes more problems than it solves. Actually, it solves no problems, and creates a whole host of other problems that could be easily avoided with some sort of a decriminalized model. Before I start, let me propose my policy solution, which is the most conservative I can imagine that still encompasses the necessary reforms. This reform would involve the cessation of imprisonment for all drug users--the current policy being replaced by some sort of treatment program. Second, and more controversially, drugs must be made available for users--prescription to addicts is one way--so the black market would be eliminated.

First, a half-dozen countries worldwide like Afghanistan, Columbia, and Mexico have been destabilized to the point of collapse by the drug trade, and a dozen others have been adversely affected. This is in addition to the boost to criminals and gangs in the United States receive from drug sales. The cartels and terrorists that cause this instability would be unemployed instantly by eliminating the black market for drugs. Second, thousands of people die every year from overdoses and communicable diseases like AIDS and hepatitis (from needle-sharing), which would be eliminated by making pharmaceutically pure drugs along with medically-standard injection needles available (of course, it's probable that people would no longer inject their heroin/morphine if it were available for a reasonable retail price). Third, around $70 billion is spent every year by state and local law enforcement and courts prosecuting the drug war which would be saved. Fourth, hundreds of people every year are imprisoned needlessly, not to mention the dozens of wrong-door raids that are committed every year.

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