Dopey, Boozy, Smoky—and Stupid

Kleiman's recent book on marijuana legalization. There's something in it to make everyone mad.
Kleiman’s recent book on marijuana legalization. There’s something in it to make everyone mad.

This week’s Throwback Sunday post focuses on a 2007 policy article by Mark Kleiman. In 2013, Kleiman was selected as the project leader to write Washington State’s marijuana regulations after the drug was decriminalized through a ballot initiative.


The National Interest has a lengthy article on drug policy by Mark A.R. Kleiman. I disagree with several of his points but this is exactly the kind of thoughtful contribution that the American drug policy debate needs more of.

I tend to see his perspective as hyper-rational (Possibly to balance the moral panic of drug crusaders and fetishization of drug culture by many legalization advocates.) and somewhat removed from both the suffering of addiction and the radical transformation that full recovery offers. I think he risks reducing policy issues to an accounting exercise but he expresses strong, well-informed opinions without an ideological ax to grind (Although there are clear Libertarian themes.) and does so without characterizing and dismissing people who think differently.

After outlining the sad state of American drug policy he says:

These are depressing facts that cry out for a radical reform to solve the drug problem once and for all. But the first step toward achieving less awful results is accepting that there is no one “solution” to the drug problem, for essentially three reasons. First, the potential for drug abuse is built into the human brain. Left to their own devices, and subject to the sway of fashion and the blandishments of advertising, many people will wind up ruining their lives and the lives of those around them by falling under the spell of one drug or another. Second, any laws—prohibitions, regulations or taxes—stringent enough to substantially reduce the number of addicts will be defied and evaded, and those who use drugs in defiance of the laws will generally wind up poorer, sicker and more likely to be criminally active than they would otherwise have been. Third, drug law enforcement must be intrusive if it is to be effective, and enterprises created for the expressed purpose of breaking the law naturally tend toward violence because they cannot rely on courts to settle disputes or police to protect them from robbery or extortion.

Any set of policies will therefore leave us with some level of substance abuse—with attendant costs to the abusers themselves, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers and the public—and some level of damage from illicit markets and law enforcement efforts. Thus the “drug problem” cannot be abolished either by “winning the war on drugs” or by “ending prohibition.” In practice the choice among policies is a choice of which set of problems we want to have.

But the absence of a silver bullet to slay the drug werewolf does not mean we are helpless. Though perfection is beyond reach, improvement is not. Policies that pursued sensible ends with cost-effective means could vastly shrink the extent of drug abuse, the damage of that abuse, and the fiscal and human costs of enforcement efforts. More prudent policies would leave us with much less drug abuse, much less crime, and many fewer people in prison than we have today.

The reforms needed to achieve these ambitious goals are radical rather than incremental. But they are not simple, or all of a piece, or in any one of the directions defined by current arguments around American dinner tables, on American editorial pages or in American legislative chambers. The conventional division of drug programs into enforcement, prevention and treatment conceals more than it reveals. So does the standard political line between punitive drug policy “hawks” and service-oriented drug policy “doves.” Neither side is consistently right; some potential improvements in drug policy are hawkish, some are dovish, and some are neither.

I disagree with the hawk vs. doves dichotomy. The service-oriented doves are really divided into at least two camps. An older, more deeply entrenched group but shrinking group of treatment professionals who might be dovish relative to hawks, but generally support some form of prohibition. Then there is a newer group of doves who aren’t all that service-oriented but are more radically dovish, advocating more radical decriminalization.

He offers five principles to guide policy decisions:

First, the overarching goal of policy should be to minimize the damage done to drug users and to others from the risks of the drugs themselves (toxicity, intoxicated behavior and addiction) and from control measures and efforts to evade them.That implies a second principle: No harm, no foul. Mere use of an abusable drug does not constitute a problem demanding public intervention. “Drug users” are not the enemy, and a achieving a “drug-free society” is not only impossible but unnecessary to achieve the purposes for which the drug laws were enacted.

Third, one size does not fit all: Drugs, users, markets and dealers all differ, and policies need to be as differentiated as the situations they address.

Fourth, all drug control policies, including enforcement, should be subjected to cost-benefit tests: We should act only when we can do more good than harm, not merely to express our righteousness. Since lawbreakers and their families are human beings, their suffering counts, too: Arrests and prison terms are costs, not benefits, of policy. Policymakers should learn from their mistakes and abandon unsuccessful efforts, which means that organizational learning must be built into organizational design. In drug policy as in most other policy arenas, feedback is the breakfast of champions.

Fifth, in discussing programmatic innovations we should focus on programs that can be scaled up sufficiently to put a substantial dent in major problems. With drug abusers numbered in the millions, programs that affect only thousands are barely worth thinking about unless they show growth potential.

Finally, he offers an agenda for policy change. I doubt I could ever comfortably endorse some of these. Others, I find myself resisting, but in the context of radical change (rather than incremental), they may be more acceptable.

  • Don’t fill prisons with ordinary dealers.
  • Lock up dealers based on nastiness, not on volume.
  • Pressure drug-using offenders to stop.
  • Break up flagrant drug markets using low-arrest crackdowns.
  • Deny alcohol to problem drinkers.
  • Raise the tax on alcohol, especially beer.
  • Eliminate the minimum drinking age.
  • Prevent drug dealing among kids.
  • Say more than “No.”
  • Don’t rely on DARE.
  • Encourage less risky forms of nicotine use.
  • Let pot-smokers grow their own.
  • Encourage problem drug users to quit without formal treatment.
  • Expand opiate maintenance.
  • Work on immunotherapies.
  • Get drug enforcement out of the way of pain relief.
  • Create a regulatory framework for performance-enhancing chemicals.
  • Figure out what hallucinogens are good for, and don’t let the drug laws interfere with religious freedom.
  • Stop sacrificing foreign policy and human rights objectives to drug control.