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Hooked on Narcomyths | The Nation

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Hooked on Narcomyths

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America's longest-running metaphorical war, a campaign against a hidden and even less well defined enemy than terrorism, is the war on drugs. This one also has its insidious domestic threats, its overseas campaign of interdiction and extermination, its potential to foster guerrilla wars and destabilize governments. It too has been supported with little dissent from a Congress where few dare to question the prevailing orthodoxy.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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Of course the analogy is misleading. There are huge differences between the threat of drugs and the threat of terrorism, whose very object is the slaughter of innocents. But to point out that obvious distinction is also to underline the excesses of a campaign whose cost in lives, privacy, social damage and political instability easily exceeds the more than $25 billion in tax money that the nation now spends on it every year. More than half of all those sent to federal prison are drug offenders.

Nonetheless, the most significant challenge to that orthodoxy so far--most of it from intellectual and social elites--is a free-market libertarianism that's as ideological and unrealistic, both as politics and policy, as the case for an all-out war. So the issue tends to be vastly oversimplified: the zero-tolerance absolutism of former US drug czar William Bennett versus the libertarian, free-market absolutism of economist Milton Friedman; prohibition with long prison terms even for simple possession versus decriminalization, including, at the margins, regulated commercial sale.

Robert J. MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at Berkeley, and Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, are certain that there is a third, and better, set of alternatives--more rational, based on experience, less sure of itself--that can thread its way, almost on a case-by-case basis, between the ideological poles and out of the morass in which US drug policy has been stuck.

In part that third way requires doing more--in needle exchanges, safe-use campaigns targeted at addicts and a whole range of non-drug policy issues like better welfare and healthcare. In part it means doing less--particularly through selective, targeted enforcement of prohibitions, shorter criminal sentences and fewer encroachments on civil liberties. MacCoun and Reuter make a sharp distinction between decriminalization and what they call depenalization, which differs from conventional prohibition not in restricting access but in limiting the severity of the penalties, particularly by replacing criminal with civil penalties. (In the case of cocaine, which they regard as far too destructive, they don't favor depenalization but only a reduction of the severe and unequal criminal sentences the United States imposes even for possession.) Nor do they support anything that would lead to commercialization even of soft drugs like marijuana, which they feel would bring--and, in places like the Netherlands, has brought--expanded use.

But their preference, often implicit, nonetheless follows a general European model that seeks overall harm reduction rather than merely a reduction in the prevalence of use, as US policy now does. They acknowledge that total harm reduction--mitigating the overall social costs not only of drug use but of prohibition and the criminal behavior associated with it--is not always an easy calculation. Among other things, calculations need to include measures of total consumption--reduction in heavy use--not just in the number of users. But it's certainly more realistic than measuring the success of policy simply by how many fewer people regularly use some illegal substance.

The implicit, and occasionally explicit, policy preferences in Drug War Heresies seem almost an afterthought next to the huge amount of data that forms the core of this book and that sheds light on almost every aspect of this issue. MacCoun and Reuter have surveyed and analyzed hundreds of studies, past and present, in this country, Europe and Australia, not just on drug policies but on experience with a range of issues that have parallels to this one--alcohol prohibition in the United States, tobacco regulation, legalized gambling, the enforcement of laws against prostitution. The real objective of the book is to document the complexity of drug policies, their often unintended consequences and, more fundamental, the lack of scientific foundation for so much of US policy. The analysis of these data, dispassionately presented in all their complexity, makes this an enormously important book. This is especially true because drug policy is a field where tendentiousness prevails, with the exception of a very few other works, like Mark Kleiman's Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (1992).

Needless to say, Drug War Heresies is hardly an easy read, much less an easy book to summarize. Nor will either side in this fight find it entirely to its liking. It leaves the standard slogans and clichés--that better policy research on things like marijuana, for example, would send the wrong message--lying in the dust. Excepting only Sweden, most of Europe, as MacCoun and Reuter make clear, is moving away from the punitive model, only rarely toward legalization and more commonly toward a far more realistic, nuanced, "harm reduction" approach not stuck in the puritanical mode that so much of US policy finds itself in. (And even the Swedes, who reject methadone maintenance and needle exchange, provide well-supported treatment and social services to addicts.) That hardly means that policies in the Netherlands, Britain, Spain and Italy, all of which they examine, are beyond question. All of them, as MacCoun said in a recent talk, are flawed in one way or another. But Europe is a rich source of lessons.

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