Double drug trouble

Ignoring failed drug war policies is not the problem; it’s coming up with anything better. By Mark A.R. Kleiman A break in the ideological ice that has kept global drug policy frozen for 40 years, as Moisés Naím calls for here, would be welcome news. But simply substituting antiprohibitionist slogans for drug-war slogans, though it ...

586417_090424_drugs12.jpg
586417_090424_drugs12.jpg

Ignoring failed drug war policies is not the problem; it's coming up with anything better.

By Mark A.R. Kleiman

Ignoring failed drug war policies is not the problem; it’s coming up with anything better.

By Mark A.R. Kleiman

A break in the ideological ice that has kept global drug policy frozen for 40 years, as Moisés Naím calls for here, would be welcome news. But simply substituting antiprohibitionist slogans for drug-war slogans, though it adds variety, does not give us clarity.

There are two distinct “drug problems.” First — logically, not in importance — is the damage that drug toxicity, intoxication, and addiction can do to people who consume drugs, and lead them to do to other people. That we might call the “drug problem” proper.

The existence of that drug problem has led to a variety of efforts to reduce drug consumption by making various drugs more expensive, harder to find, or legally risky to possess: taxes on alcohol, restrictions on tobacco marketing, bans on sales of alcohol and tobacco to minors, bans on any sale of cocaine or heroin for nonmedical use, bans on any sale whatever of MDMA (“ecstasy”). Every such tax, regulation, or prohibition creates opportunities for profitable evasion: moonshining, cigarette smuggling, a street-corner drunk buying a six-pack for a teenager, a patient selling prescription narcotics, illicit production and sale of alcohol during the Prohibition era or of cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine today.

Those illicit markets sometimes generate violence and disorder, and the higher prices they create stimulate income-producing crime by some drug users. The enforcement effort also generates harm: arrest, incarceration, bribery, gunfights between enforcers and dealers. The problem of the illicit market constitutes the second “drug problem.”

Drug warriors tend to focus narrowly on the drug abuse problem and reject any attempt to limit the harms done by trafficking and enforcement, other than by putting dealers out of business. But the logic of the market dictates that incarcerated dealers will be replaced as long as there are customers willing to pay illicit-market prices. After more than a generation of fighting this war, there is overwhelming evidence that drug-law enforcement is a weak tool at best for reducing drug consumption. That evidence strongly suggests that enforcement agencies should concentrate on minimizing the drug-market threats to public safety and order rather than waste their efforts in a fruitless quest to reduce drug supply.

Alas, the fact that enforcement mostly fails to reduce drug consumption does not imply that we have some magical process called “education and treatment” that will be more effective. In fact, we do not. Nor is “decriminalization” — easing up on drug users — a panacea. Most of the harms from illicit markets and drug enforcement come from dealers, not users; and decriminalization alone does nothing to reduce the revenues, or the violence, of drug-trafficking organizations.

The United States could — and should — greatly de-escalate its domestic drug war, halving the number of dealers behind bars, without greatly increasing drug abuse. It should redirect enforcement to reducing violence and disorder. Americans should insist that offenders under community supervision — who consume a substantial share of all illicit drugs — refrain from illicit drug use, or face quick, brief, but certain jail stays. That process has reduced methamphetamine use among Honolulu’s probationers to an extent that drug-treatment providers could only dream of.

Internationally, Americans should stop allowing the fantasy of drug-supply reduction to dominate U.S. foreign policy toward Mexico and Afghanistan.

But all of that will require careful thought and skillful execution. Both no-brainer “solutions” to the drug problem –“a drug-free society” and “ending the drug war” — are equally delusional. The two drug problems are both here to stay. Let’s learn to deal with that fact.

Mark A.R. Kleiman is professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles; the author of Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results; and the editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Princeton University Press will publish his new book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment this summer.

Juan Carlos REYES/AFP/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.