Drug war sense

federal inmates

I’ve always thought that there’s a lot that could be done to improve the state of the drug war without passing a single law. Police and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in terms of what priorities to maintain and which charges to file once someone has been arrested.

It sounds like the feds are about to exercise some sensible discretion:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is set to announce Monday that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.

Holder is calling for a change in Justice Department policies to reserve the most severe penalties for drug offenses for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. He has directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to develop specific, locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.


More than two options

Operation Mallorca, US Drug Enforcement Admini...
Operation Mallorca, US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Kleiman is making sense:

“For every complex problem,” H.L. Mencken wrote, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

That is especially true of drug abuse and addiction. Indeed, the problem is so complex that it has produced not just one clear, simple, wrong solution but two: the “drug war” (prohibition plus massive, undifferentiated enforcement) and proposals for wholesale drug legalization.

Fortunately, these two bad ideas are not our only choices. We could instead take advantage of proven new approaches that can make us safer while greatly reducing the number of Americans behind bars for drug offenses.

Our current drug policies do far more harm than they need to do and far less good than they might, largely because they ignore some basic facts. Treating all “drug abusers” as a single group flies in the face of what is known as Pareto’s Law: that for any given activity, 20% of the participants typically account for 80% of the action.

Thank goodness for commentary that avoids straw men and phony binary choices.

Harsh enforcement has failed

drug policy by mmcrae01

This Foreign Policy article provides a concise snapshot of the failure of the “harsh enforcement” approach to drug policy:

As a domestic policy, a harsh enforcement approach has done little to control drug use, but has done a lot to lock up a growing portion of the U.S. population. Cocaine and opiate prices are about half their 1990 levels in in America today. And 16 percent of American adults have tried cocaine — that’s about four times higher than any other surveyed country in a list that includes Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, France, and Germany. And while criminalization has a limited impact on price and use, it has a significant impact on crime rates. Forty percent of drug arrests in the United States are for the simple possession of marijuana. Nearly half a million people are behind bars in the United States for a drug offense — that’s more than ten times the figure in 1980.

It’s easy to write with certainty when you are vague. It’s also easier when you are only addressing a narrow set of values:

Conversely, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report compiled evidence suggesting that approaches based on treatment rather than punishment were far more effective in reducing consumption, HIV prevalence, and crime rates among users. For example, Britain and Germany, both of which long ago adopted harm reduction strategies for people injecting drugs — programs that include needle exchange programs and medication — see HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs below 5 percent. The United States and Portugal, by contrast, where such strategies were introduced later or only partially, see HIV prevalence among a similar community at above 15 percent.

“Reduced consumption” is a good thing, I suppose. But, is that a good indicator of the welfare of addicts? I’m not so sure.

Based on my knowledge of the UK system, would I rather be a heroin addict in the US or the UK? Easy call—the US recovery model or UK harm reduction model—recovery.

The US’s incarceration rates for drug offenses are terrible, indecent and stupid. However, I’m not certain that a system that believes addicts can’t recover, offers only methadone even though patients express a preference for abstinent recovery is better even if it does reduce crime and disease. Does this show more restraint in the exercise of social control? Not clear to me.

The sands are shifting in both the UK and the US. It’d be nice if we could stop having these either/or discussions and consider entertaining a both/and conversation.