Jun 12, 2011

How to end the war on drugs?

Ezra Klein asks a question:
The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently reported back. What it said was what most everyone who's looked into this issue already knew: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." A new approach, one based more on realistic interventions than martial metaphors, is needed.

The news, however, was who was saying this: Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. Former secretary of state George P. Schultz. Former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardozo. Former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan. Former president of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss. And many more important "formers."

So here's my question: What alignment of political forces and events would be needed for America to seriously rethink its drug laws? Would it have to begin in the states? Is it something a law-and-order Republican needs to do?
The last few years has seen a slow fruition of years of work from the drug policy reform community.  A batch of organizations and individuals, from SSDP to NORML to Erowid, from Gary Johnson to Bill Maher to Pete Guither, have brought the issue onto the national radar.  Still, I see a few big realignments that need to happen or progress before anything besides marijuana can be addressed intelligently.

1) Drug policy reform must be anointed with Seriousness.  One of the biggest obstacles here is the media's usual portrayal of reformers as wild-eyed DFHs or drug-addled monsters.  As Jay Rosen has said, "the power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do."  This is partially the fault of irresponsible fools like Timothy Leary, and as the memories and fears of the sixties fade, the effectiveness of the "soft on drugs" charge will slowly fade.

This realignment is starting to happen, particularly with the rise of fine new media organizations like TPM.  Reports like the one from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and pressure from groups like SSDP, are key to keeping this trend going and taking some of the air out of the "tough on drugs" stance.

2) Various middle-income and poor countries that are being devastated by anti-drug policies must assert their views and be taken seriously.  Places like Columbia, Nicaragua, and Mexico have serious and continuing problems because of the massive amounts of money to be made creating drugs to be sold on the US market, and the US's insistence on using chemical defoliants to try and poison the drug fields.  Moreover, those same countries are often stuck with obnoxious treaties on things like coca leaf that were stuffed down their throats years ago by the US.  Here again, there are some positive things happening; Evo Morales' crusade against anti-coca trade agreements is a good example.

3) Drugs, particularly "hard" ones, must be reconsidered.  The popular image of cocaine, heroin and meth is one mostly taken from drug memoirs.  This says that they are staggeringly dangerous substances where one try leads nearly inevitably to a life of crime and irreversible brain damage.  This is simply not true.  Take this review article about cocaine:
After a decade when cocaine use was reported to be rampant and uncontrollable for a sizable group of Americans, the 1990 National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA) found that 11.5 percent of Americans reported ever using cocaine, 3 percent used cocaine within the past year, and 0.9 percent used in the last month (NIDA, 1991; see Harrison, 1994). Of current users (those who have used the drug in the last year), a third used the drug 12 or more times a year, and 10 percent used cocaine once a week or more. These results replicate another, earlier study:
Cocaine use appears to be experimental in nature and to involve few experiences for a substantial portion of those who report any lifetime experience with the drug. One-half (53%) of the male users and two-thirds (67 %) of the female users have used cocaine less than 10 times in their lives; 34% and 28 %, respectively, have used 10 to 99 times, 9% and 3% have used 100 to 999 times, 3% and 2% have used 1,000 or more times. (Kandel, Murphy, & Karus, 1985)
A Canadian survey found 5 percent of current users used monthly or more often (Adlaf, Smart, & Canale, 1991). But monthly and weekly use are far from addiction, and only 10-25 percent of regular users resemble clinical addicts, or about 1-2 percent of all current users (Erickson & Alexander, 1989).
To be sure, hard drugs are not to be trifled with.  But the reality of drug use needs to be part of any reasonable policy calculation—and the common view of "drugs" as substances of distilled evil is a big part of propping up the drug war architecture.  At the very least, drugs like LSD and marijuana must be untangled from their association with heroin and meth in federal law.  Psychedelics, in particular, are completely unsuited to their current designation under the Controlled Substances Act.  (The strangling of psychedelics research for more than forty years, only now being haltingly reversed, is a big scientific tragedy.)

As to Ezra's final questions: I'm somewhat skeptical that reform could start in the states.  Steps toward even marijuana reform are now being met with federal SWAT teams and legal threats (by an alleged Democrat!).  Absent at least federal nonintervention, I don't see serious reform happening.

There could be a Nixon-in-China effect for some conservative Republican who decided to tackle drug policy reform, but the idea of someone making it through the Tea Party meat grinder with such a policy beggars belief.  Gary Johnson and Ron Paul will never win the nomination because they are just such supporters.  Believe me, I would be the first to cheer if Johnson was the nominee, but I don't see it happening.


  1. Interesting, Ryan. I have 2 questions, and I apologize for my ignorance. What is a DHF? What is a middle income country? Thanks, B

  2. Oops, sorry. Make that What is a DFH? B

  3. A DFH is a Dirty Fucking Hippy, which fits nicely with the point Ryan was making.

    Ryan can chime in with his definition of "middle-income country," but I'm assuming he means the countries that are not quite fully developed (i.e. up to par with Japan/US/western Europe/S. Korea etc) but don't live in abject poverty (like most of sub-Saharan Africa) either. I would imagine countries like Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia fit into this category.

    That's just my guess though - I'll let Ryan chime in so he can define his own term.