I’m encouraged to see how much common ground there is between my colleagues and me. But some key differences remain.
Peter Kornbluh contends that the distorting effect of all those CIA exposés is temporary, that in the long run they reinforce popular cynicism about government policy, but this seems naïve. John Kerry’s investigation into US drug policy in Central America may have helped dramatize the hypocrisy of the drug war, but it also built support for the invasion of Panama. Gary Webb’s work may have convinced the Institute for Policy Studies to create a citizens’ fact-finding commission on US drug policy, but it also gave rise to meetings like the one in Compton that Kornbluh describes. That the audience felt driven to cheer a major crack dealer like Ricky Ross vividly illustrates my point about the warping effect these exposés have had.
As Kornbluh candidly notes, most of the authors of these exposés don’t really care about the drug issue. They’re interested in it only to the extent that it can contribute to their efforts to expose US covert activities abroad. This seems cynical in its own right. That said, I welcome Kornbluh’s assurance that the investigators of CIA drug-running endorse an enlightened package of drug policy reform.
Mike Gray makes several assertions that—taken as gospel by legalizers—are nonetheless highly dubious. One is his farfetched contention that prohibition created the drug problem in the first place. The entrenched poverty in our inner cities seems a far more important cause. I also question his assertion that it’s easier for teenagers to get marijuana than beer. Anyone who visits a bar near a college campus can attest to how readily available alcohol is to minors. The notoriously lax state regulation of alcohol sales to minors seems a poor model for drug distribution. As for adults, most cannot find heroin or crack within hours, much less minutes; to assert that such drugs have a market penetration rivaling Coca-Cola is preposterous. Even those who do know where to find hard drugs are often deterred by the fear of arrest. And without such a deterrent, it seems reasonable to assume that more Americans would use, and abuse, these drugs.
As for the Dutch, they have not legalized heroin; they have fought it with the types of treatment and prevention programs I advocate in my essay. I agree with Gray that the Swiss heroin-maintenance experiment is promising and should probably be tested here. To qualify for the Swiss program, though, one must be a chronic addict. That leaves the question of how to deal with people addicted to other drugs, like cocaine, as well as with those not addicted at all. How should drugs be made available to these users. Gray—like so many advocates of legalization—offers few specifics.
I agree with most of what Elliott Currie has to say. In my book The Fix, I discuss at length the need to provide not only more treatment but better treatment. I wholeheartedly agree that treatment programs work best when joined to broader efforts to improve addicts’ lives through the provision of steady jobs, affordable housing and the like. Currie loses me, however, when he engages in rhetorical flights about the need to fight misery and hopelessness and to raise living standards for the dispossessed—not because I oppose such goals, but because casting the issue so grandly makes real reform all the more difficult. Imagine being asked to testify before a state or Congressional panel about drug reform. How far is one likely to get talking about the need for paid family leave, quality childcare and national health insurance. I think it would be far more effective to discuss the need to ease drug penalties, reduce the number of drug arrests, make treatment more available and improve the quality of treatment.
With each passing month, more and more Americans become disillusioned with the drug war and open to a new approach. To gain favor, though, that approach must (1) be tough on drug abuse, (2) be narrowly focused on the drug issue and (3) have a real chance of working. I believe that the public-health strategy I have described—away from punishment and toward rehabilitation (in the broad sense Elliott Currie advocates)—offers our best chance of success.