Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

November 29, 2006

Arguing the Drug War

by Brad Warbiany

Over at Jason Pye’s blog, he wrote a post bemoaning the prevalence of no-knock raids, and asking what we can do to improve a situation which is clearly not working. Quite a long comment train followed regarding the entire drug war.

Head on over and take a look. The main tactics of argument on the other side are twofold– First, they claim drugs are bad and if they’re legalized, the world will go up in flames. Second, that if we want to really solve the problem, we need to fight harder.

I’ll address the second point first. The specific argument from one opponent was:

I realize it’s the law that they’re taking issue with, Jace. I happen to believe that more effort is needed in treating criminals like criminals with stiffer penalties, jail sentences and deprivation of luxury…….but we haven’t done that yet because some folks can’t stomach the thought of that kind of inmate treatment.

I wonder what we’ve been doing since the war on drugs began? Since then, we’ve seen stiffer penalties and jail sentences, where we now have “three strikes” laws and mandatory minimums for drug offenses that are worse than rape sentences. While we haven’t made prison into a dank, dark dungeon just yet, it sure as hell ain’t the Ritz Carlton.

But look at the tactic. We’ve been fighting the War on Drugs harder and harder for many years. Would we have accepted such long minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders when the drug war began? Would we have accepted paramilitary-style no-knock raids back then? Would we have accepted making possession of large sums of money evidence of a drug crime back then? Would we have accepted the destruction of civil liberties that has been a hallmark of the drug war?

We see no evidence whatsoever that we’ve made the drug problem any less prevalent than it was before the drug war began. We have made the inner city much more violent and dangerous, full of gang warfare fueled by the profits of drug sales. We’ve incarcerated hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of nonviolent drug offenders, at huge expense to the taxpayer.

We’ve been “fighting harder” ever since we started, and we haven’t made the problem better, as drugs are just as easy to find on our streets as they’ve ever been. But we have made the unintended consequences worse. One wonders just how far they’ll go to fight harder? Where is their limit, if no-knock raids resulting in the deaths of the elderly and three injured cops aren’t it?

But then comes the question of whether we could do better with a method of treatment rather than prosecuting a ruthless drug war. The same opponent demanded evidence:

Show me some “evidence” that legalizing drugs in America “with our mentality” is a better option.

So I did:

http://www.umich.edu/~umisl/articles/dec.htm

It references a 1994 RAND study on how to solve the issue:

In formulating such a policy, a good starting point is a 1994 RAND study that sought to compare the effectiveness of four different types of drug control: source-control programs (attacking the drug trade abroad), interdiction (stopping drugs at the border), domestic law enforcement (arresting and imprisoning buyers and sellers) and drug treatment. How much additional money, RAND asked, would the government have to spend on each approach to reduce national cocaine consumption by 1 percent? RAND devised a model of the national cocaine market, then fed into it more than seventy variables, from seizure data to survey responses. The results were striking: Treatment was found to be seven times more cost-effective than law enforcement, ten times more effective than interdiction and twenty-three times more effective than attacking drugs at their source.

The RAND study has generated much debate in drug-research circles, but its general conclusion has been confirmed in study after study. Yes, relapse is common, but, as RAND found, treatment is so inexpensive that it more than pays for itself while an individual is actually in a program, in the form of reduced crime, medical costs and the like; all gains that occur after an individual leaves a program are a bonus. And it doesn’t matter what form of treatment one considers: methadone maintenance, long-term residential, intensive outpatient and twelve-step programs all produce impressive outcomes (though some programs work better for certain addicts than for others).

Now, I thought that would score some points in this one. I thought that a serious academic study by a respected organization like RAND would carry some weight. After all, it’s not like this is a pro-drug organization; this wasn’t printed in High Times. Nor are they an obviously libertarian group like the Cato institute. If anyone’s study should hold weight, I would think it’s a group devoted to offering serious academic study to the way our government works. But not so:

This study is just that-a study- using numbers and “survey” responses not Human Beings- with today’s mentality. It has some impressive points but you’ll never get this concept to fly in this day and age.

How do you argue with that? I went on to argue that we’ve seen this before (the Prohibition of alcohol), which of course wouldn’t be accepted as evidence because alcohol isn’t as bad as “drugs”. I went on to argue that other countries have seen success with treatment programs, but that was responded to with “These other countrys you refer to don’t have the U.S. Constitution’s protection, the American mentality or Civil Rights activists around every corner…”

I think it’s clear what was going on. When points were brought up by my opponent, and I answered them, my answers were not accepted. It had nothing to do with the merits of my answers, because for any answer I gave, an excuse was offered. My opponent was not interested in actually arguing the merits of the case, he had made up his mind and was looking for any excuse not to change it. That’s what we’re fighting with. It’s a mentality that says “drugs are bad, and there’s absolutely no line that can’t be crossed fighting them.” It doesn’t matter if the collateral damage of fighting against drugs, drugs which are supplied through a violent black market, are worse and more expensive than treating drug users. It doesn’t even matter if it will work, when the people you’re arguing against aren’t listening.

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  • John Newman

    I find an aspirin and a drink helps after I beat my head against a petrified opinion.

  • http://www.mapinc.org/writer/muse Kirk Muse

    Brad:
    I suggest you submit your thoughtful opinions regarding our failed drug policy to a print publication, then your letters or op-ed can be posted on the web site: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews
    then thousands of like minded people will read what you wrote.

  • http://www.jasonpye.com Jason

    He didn’t like my “drugs are bad, mmmkay” line either.

  • http://noangst.blogspot.com mike

    Hahaha…that’s my favorite quote to bring up in discussions like this. In fact, I was just going to use it, but you beat me to it.

    I skimmed the comment thread real quick, and it reads like the very definition of a stereotypical war on drugs discussion.

    1) They’re “just” druggies, I believe the cops.

    2) Drugs are bad, mmmkay?

    3) Maybe the cops did screw up, but this is an aberration. And it’s the price we have to pay to eradicate drugs.

    4) Prohibition isn’t a valid example because alcohol is different.

    5) Drugs are bad, mmmkay?

    6) Anyone can come up with a “study.” Probably done by potheads anyway.

    7) Did I mention that drugs are bad?

  • ERICKANDERSON

    “because alcohol is different”
    ya, alcohol is lethal and pot gives me a headache hear and there

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