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Is the Drug War a Failure?

| 22 Comments
I'm opposed to the legalization of drugs.  Yes, it would increase "freedom," very broadly construed, but comes at too high a price to the well-being of the country.  I might add that, except for pot, this is the overwhelming view of my fellow citizens.

It is nonetheless often said by those supporting drug legalization that the drug war is a failure, and simply for that reason, should be abandoned.

Is that true?  Is the drug war a failure?
The truth is that there is no persuasive evidence it's a failure, and strong evidence it's a success.

First, there are no good data ("data" often being thunderously demanded by academics when what they actually want is a filibuster) that drug use hasn't fallen, for the simple reason that there are no good data about drug use at all.  This point is brilliantly made in a recent post put up by Doug Berman at SL&P. How can legalizers say we've had no success at decreasing drug use when they have no idea how much drug use there is?  And still less of how much we had 30 or 40 years ago?.

Second, law and economics theory (not to mention common sense) tells us that, when you increase the costs and risks of doing X, people will do less of X.  When drug trafficking and use are made illegal, it increases the costs and risks of doing them. What does this tell us about whether having laws against trafficking suppresses trafficking?

Hello!

Third, no serious person denies that there is a strong correlation between drug trafficking and crime.  As the drug war escalated over the last generation, with more aggressive enforcement and stiffer penalties, what happened to crime?

It fell dramatically  --  both property crime and violent crime.

(And what explanation do liberals give us for the increased crime over the last two years, especially in (although scarcely limited to) cities like Baltimore and Chicago? Right you are!  They say it's because of increased drug gang activity).  

The vast, generation-long decrease in crime is thus indirect, but still powerful, evidence that the drug war has made progress.  Merely a small decrease in crime would not be evidence of success in the drug war, but a crime decrease by this much, with this breadth and for this long, cannot plausibly be explained by anything other than, among other things, a significant degree of success in suppressing the drug trade.

It is of course true that the war against drug use has not entirely succeeded.  So what? The war against poverty has not entirely succeeded.  Neither has the war against terrorism, murder and crime generally.

Does this mean we should quit fighting?

Drug use exacts a horrible human and financial toll.  Not for nothing have elected leaders of all stripes, from Ronald Reagan and George Bush to Bill Clinton and (even) Barack Obama, maintained, or accelerated, the drug war.   

The question is not whether it's entirely succeeded.  It hasn't and it won't, because human weakness and foolishness will never be eradicated, just as traffickers' callous and greed-driven willingness to prey upon those failings won't be eradicated either. But it can be reduced, and in the name of simple decency toward those most vulnerable to the drug trade, we must maintain our efforts.

22 Comments

Bill, the history of US alcohol policy and the huge uptick of crime during Prohibition prompts me to suggest drug prohibition may be what creates a "strong correlation between drug trafficking and crime." The same correlation was evident with alcohol trafficking until alcohol was legalized again. And not only did alcohol Prohibition fuel crime, it also fueled other restraints on freedom/equal treatment and a huge growth in federal and state government powers. A recent book by historian Lisa McGirr provides an interesting accounting of these realities: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/The-War-on-Alcohol/

There are lots of ways --- historically and scientifically --- to distinguish various drugs from alcohol. But your final refrain of "we must maintain our efforts" reminds me a lot of work/rhetoric of Mabel Walker Willebrandt as she advocated against the repeal of alcohol Prohibition. And, critically, one can certainly still make the case that we ought never to have repealed alcohol Prohibition given the "horrible human and financial toll" we see from chronic alcoholism, binge drinking on college campuses and drunk driving.

In the end, short-term cost/benefit analysis is very unlikely to provide clear answers on any politically viable incremental changes like marijuana legalization (as in Colorado) or drug decriminalization (as in Portugal). For that reason, one's view on proposed reforms must be informed by a broader normative vision: do you err on the side of less government and less limits on risky human behaviors or do you trust/encourage governments making/enforcing through criminal sanctions strict rules about risky behaviors.

I call myself a libertarian because of which side I am inclined to err on, and I call you a big government conservative because posts like this one show which side you are inclined to err on. It is a very defensible possible you articulate, but it is one that necessarily makes efforts in other arenas to shrink the size and impact of government regulation that much harder.

Why can't this issue simply be framed for what it is-responsible enforcement of reasonable laws regarding "dangerous" substances.

It has unnecessarily been a political football for many years-even predating these divisive times in Washington.

The 'War on Drugs' moniker is sloganeering that has taken on a life of its own.

Douglas stated: "In the end, short-term cost/benefit analysis is very unlikely to provide clear answers on any politically viable incremental changes like marijuana legalization (as in Colorado) or drug decriminalization (as in Portugal)."

In other times this would indicate a need for humility and to proceed with great caution as the change you seek could be catastrophic, but that doesn't fly today. Instead, you prefer to arrogantly assume the change will be beneficial or have no impact and shift the burden of proof onto those who should not carry it. Unfortunately, the burden of the consequences of your decision also will not fall on to you and will instead sit on the shoulders of those who should not carry it.

You stated: "For that reason, one's view on proposed reforms must be informed by a broader normative vision: do you err on the side of less government and less limits on risky human behaviors or do you trust/encourage governments making/enforcing through criminal sanctions strict rules about risky behaviors. I call myself a libertarian because of which side I am inclined to err on, and I call you a big government conservative because posts like this one show which side you are inclined to err on."

I assume someone has asked this before, so humor me with an answer because I have not seen it. Does this "freedom" you claim to desire for "risky behaviors" extend to hard drugs, open air markets at schools, and meth heads slumped in the gutter? Or, is there a limit to freedom when it has a significant and negative impact on the rest of society?

Here is the "normative vision" you propose and defend: Millions more children using marijuana, causing schizophrenia, psychoses, and other mental illnesses that permanently alter their developing brains, making them more likely to be unsuccessful in life, on the dole, unemployed or underemployed, abusive parents, and to eventually take harder drugs.

Now, this is where you interject that you are talking about legalizing it ONLY for adults, but there are two problems with that position.

1) The premise of your argument is that prohibition does not work based on a different culture 100 years ago when it was tried and resulted in more black markets and crime. However, by your own logic, excluding children from legalization can only lead to a black market (and crime) for providing to teens. So, to be consistent, you have to support access by teens.

Not to mention, freedom.

2) We know for a fact that legalization for adults will lead to more kids using it. More kids drink alcohol than smoke pot for a very simple reason. Booze is legally sold, pot is not. It makes it more readily accessible. So, yes, you are pushing for more kids to smoke pot, the very age group that it harms the most.

That is your "normative vision." Sorry, I reject it. Not as some love for big government but out of the knowledge that some items are too big and too important for a functioning society to allow. Your "freedom" argument has been used by eugenics supporters all the way to child molesters.

It's a talking point as a means to an end. Not a well thought out position.

mjs: I agree it would be helpful (though challenging) to try to focus on danger/harm. Most efforts to do so suggest we should be regulating alcohol and tobacco much more than cannabis: http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004477

Tarls: I agree on the "need for humility and to proceed with great caution." But we have made barely any changes to the CSA for nearly 50 years and the most significant changes we have made at the federal level has been increase criminal penalties and enforcement (i.e., growing of government). More than 20+ years ago, marijuana reform got a tentative start with "medical" reform in California (in a form that is quasi-recreational) and few seem to think we have seen a catastrophic impact there or in Colorado where we have now had nearly 5 years of experience with honest recreational reform. We are moving forward with caution, and so far it seems voters/citizens are pleased with the results (though AG Sessions may have different view).

Critically, I do not at all deny that more kids will have access to marijuana if/when it is legalize and that may lead to many more kids doing harm to themselves. But wouldn't the same argument work for gun prohibition? I believe a child under 12 dies from gun shot every week in the US. Does that justify prohibiting all guns? Aren't these deaths to innocent children a sign that guns are "too big and too important for a functioning society to allow." And, as you surely know, the argument against repealing Obamacare and limiting govt benefits reasonable includes the "millions of children" will be hurt. I am not complaining of you making a "talking point," but rather highlight that your concern about "harm to the children" is the first move of big-government fans everywhere. And that is fine, but admit and embrace that you trust government to prohibit even adult freedoms when it believe that risks to kids --- from smoking or coal or seeing mean tweets --- are too great for society to bear.

Finally, and here is the basis for my "very unlikely to provide clear answers" point, there is a reasonable basis to believe some (many?) kids will be better off thanks to the medical research, tax revenue and economic development that marijuana reform permits as well as from the possible substitution effect if certain folks use marijuana instead of alcohol as their "party" drug. (Ask kids in Pueblo getting college scholarship thanks to a local pot tax if they are harmed by reform.)

Again, I am not asserting there is no risk of harm to kids, but I am saying that the analysis is not so obvious concerning incremental changes so as to make "less freedom/more criminal prosecution" the obvious and only rational choice. And so, we return to the issue of whether you think at this moment we should stick with more government or keep incrementally trying out having less and see if we can use a new freedom reasonably well. We may not, and I get you do not want to risk it because you fear the possible consequences of more freedom here. Fine, but realize how that makes the argument for more freedom elsewhere just that much harder.

Douglas stated: "...and few seem to think we have seen a catastrophic impact there or in Colorado where we have now had nearly 5 years of experience with honest recreational reform. We are moving forward with caution,..."

Perhaps not "catastrophic," but has Colorado come close to delivering on the promises that people like you offered?

Has the black market been gutted?
Are the roads more or less safer?

And let's not ignore the obvious, that it will take far more than five years to assess the full impact of legalization. It will take a generation to see the full impact it has on workplace safety, highway safety, child abuse, etc. I did not promise catastrophe within 5 years but your ilk DID promise some kind of pot utopia where black market/drug crime from pot would be all but eradicated and highway safety would increase when people stopped taking alcohol and smoked pot instead. It did not happen. In fact, the opposite occurred so you are now selling a new line of BS.

You stated: "But wouldn't the same argument work for gun prohibition? I believe a child under 12 dies from gun shot every week in the US. Does that justify prohibiting all guns? Aren't these deaths to innocent children a sign that guns are "too big and too important for a functioning society to allow.""

Reductio ad absurdum. Sure, we could limit speed on highways to 5 mph to save kids but we do not. A higher speed limit provides a huge value to society, as does gun ownership. Smoking pot does very little to nothing that cannot be replaced with modern medicine. Not to mention, comparing a constitutional right with smoking harmful chemicals is its own absurdity.

You stated: "And, as you surely know, the argument against repealing Obamacare and limiting govt benefits reasonable includes the "millions of children" will be hurt."

Yeah, but it is not an accurate or truthful argument, so why use it?

You state: "I am not complaining of you making a "talking point," but rather highlight that your concern about "harm to the children" is the first move of big-government fans everywhere."

Yeah, so? You have a habit of improperly defining "big government." There are certain functions that government is SUPPOSED to have a large role in. Spending a ton of money on defense is not "big government" because it is its proper role. Ensuring that I have health insurance is not.

You stated: "Finally, and here is the basis for my "very unlikely to provide clear answers" point, there is a reasonable basis to believe some (many?) kids will be better off thanks to the medical research, tax revenue and economic development that marijuana reform permits as well as from the possible substitution effect if certain folks use marijuana instead of alcohol as their "party" drug."

1) Marijuana is many times worse for a teen brain than alcohol. It is long term (lifetime) damage even if smoked only occasionally. A beer has no such impact. The only "substitution effect" is a bad one.

2) As stated in the other thread, it is a dishonest argument that you always spread. It is dishonest because you put forth ONLY the supposed societal benefits (ignoring how many turned out to be lies 5 years ago) and have no interest in measuring the real and significant societal harm. You, and all of your ilk, play it like a used car salesman (or lawyer) trying to make a sale and not as honest brokers looking for the truth. That's fine, I suppose, but just stop pretending that you are not the used car salesman.

3) No libertarian I have ever met actually thought that putting MORE tax money in government coffers is a good thing. You cannot claim to be small government AND desire to give the government more power through taxation. The two are antithetical.

You stated: "...I am saying that the analysis is not so obvious concerning incremental changes..."

Stop with the "incremental changes" canard. Given the political ability, you and your ilk would do it in one fell swoop.

One final point. You obviously chose to not answer some very important questions. Hmm.

Do you support the legalization of hard drugs? Why or why not? It's about freedom, right?

Do you support legalizing pot (and even hard drugs) for children and open air drug markets on playgrounds? After all, prohibition proved that criminalization just causes black markets and crime, right?

Tarls, I haven't promised anything, and I agree many advocates for legalization overstate potential benefits/understate potential harms from reform AND that we will need a generation or more to "run the numbers." So..., as I said, because the sort-term cost/benefit analysis cannot provide an indisputable answer, more/less govt commitments inform one's views. (An argument can be made 4 generations after the end of alcohol Prohibition that more freedom here has brought many more costs than benefits. But I am not urging for a return to alcohol prohibition for the sake of the kids or roadway safety, are you?)

Many democratic nations around the world think govt should be providing health care as well as prohibiting gun ownership in the name of public health and safety, and they think this is exactly what government should be doing. You surely disagree, but you are playing semantic games when saying the type of big government you support is not really big government. Would you also say alcohol Prohibition was not big government (or was it until it got into the Constitution)?

Own up to the reality that the public safety/health arguments you are making to justify criminal prohibition are the type progressives used to justify alcohol Prohibition and all sorts of other increases in government size/reach/intervention into "private" affairs. It is a perfectly acceptable argument, but one that supports a bigger govt in all sorts of settings -- and might support now a prohibition of kids playing football or soccer because of potential brain injuries. I trust you have seen the science on how bad football can be for the teen brain.

I am looking for the truth, and the truth as I see it right now is that the cost/benefit analysis is very unlikely to provide clear answers on any politically viable incremental changes. I am not selling (though I know others are) any utopia after reform. But I am also not seeing or selling a coming catastrophe. And I am unclear what you are calling a dishonest argument --- the substitution point? Substitution of alcohol is a possibility but not a certainty and the evidence right now is unclear (though beer sales are now down in Colorado). Substitution of opioids seems another possible benefit, but again only time will tell how this plays out. You are right to call out some advocate for making overly rosy predictions about the benefits of legalization, but some prohibitions do the same in the oter direction (e.g., there were assertions by opponents that crime would increase 300% in Colorado.)

I am not a fan of taxes, but I see them here as a lesser evil to prohibition of commercial transactions and harmful big-government (and uneven) enforcement. Do you know of any libertarian who would prefer alcohol Prohibition to alcohol taxes? Who advocate for tobacco prohibition over tobacco taxes? And are libertarians part of my "ilk" or only lawyers?

I did not mean to avoid your questions, and I will try to answer then here:

1. I favor eliminating government programs that do not obviously do more good than harm. Prohibition of alcohol seemed not obviously to do more good than harm and I am glad we went back to legalization (though, as mentioned before, an argument can be made it did plenty of good). Blanket prohibition of marijuana also is not obviously doing more good than harm, so I support reform and I like that we are doing so incrementally. If that goes well, I am open to trying alternatives to prohibition of other drugs. The reports from Portugal concerning their decriminalization efforts are encouraging, but it may be the case that in the US the government obviously does more good than harm through the prohibition of meth and heroin. It is about preferring freedom when the cost/benefit analysis is unclear because I strongly believe in the benefits of a presumption of freedom over a presumption of government control.

2. I favor pateralism over freedom for those still learning about themselves and society --- e.g., I think children should be required to go to school and not be able to buy guns or knives or drugs or alcohol or tobacco on playgrounds. And though there are surely black markets in guns and alcohol and tobacco near plenty of playgrounds, I think we are doing a reasonable job balancing freedom and government in these commodities. I would general favor trying marijuana under the same basic rules and follow closely how this is going.

In case you missed it, Tarls, here is the "teen brain protection" argument for keeping kids from playing football on organized playgrounds: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/07/opinion/dont-let-kids-play-football.html.

But, of course, kids in the US only want to play football because they see adults doing it and they probably will play it on their own even if we prohibit it only in high school. So I guess we better have the govt protect kids by prohibiting college and pro football. There are plenty of other much safer ways to play sports and get exercise, no?

Douglas stated: " So..., as I said, because the sort-term cost/benefit analysis cannot provide an indisputable answer, more/less govt commitments inform one's views."

Nonsense. First, the numbers do not exist because those like you (an academic whose job is to search for such answers) choose not to look for them. Second, if there is no "indisputable answer", then stop giving one side of the argument and quoting only supposed benefits (e.g. taxation) of legalization. It's one-sided and dishonest, more a tactic of a used car salesman. Third, criminalization is the status quo. We do not just let any new medicine or medical procedure go to the market without painstaking testing for a reason, because of the "do no harm" premise. The same principle should relate to such a huge change that you propose.

You stated: "But I am not urging for a return to alcohol prohibition for the sake of the kids or roadway safety, are you?"

You really need to put this tired and irrelevant "Prohibition" argument to rest. A different time and culture. Alcohol was already an embedded part of our culture, as ingrained as owning weapons or being a Christian nation. Just as no government is going to take our weapons peacefully or demand that we practice Islam, no one was going to take alcohol away. Despite decades of trying, marijuana is not as embedded but once legalized it will become so and criminalizing it again will be near impossible despite the chaos it causes. Having one harmful chemical legal is a crappy excuse to legalize another.

You stated: "Many democratic nations around the world think govt should be providing health care as well as prohibiting gun ownership in the name of public health and safety, and they think this is exactly what government should be doing."

Who cares? We are not talking about "many democratic nations." We are talking about a single specific democratic nation. In that one, gun ownership is a right outlined in our founding document and providing healthcare is nowhere to be found in the same document. Please stay on topic.

You stated: "You surely disagree, but you are playing semantic games when saying the type of big government you support is not really big government."

Nope. Big government is it getting into healthcare. Why? Because it is not one of its functions as outlined in the constitution. Doing what it was formed to do is not "big government."

You stated: "Own up to the reality that the public safety/health arguments you are making to justify criminal prohibition are the type progressives used to justify alcohol Prohibition and all sorts of other increases in government size/reach/intervention into "private" affairs."

Yeah? So? That others may use a justification incorrectly does not make the proper use of the same justification wrong. Nearly ALL laws are justified on some "public safety/health arguments." Does that make murder statues "wrong" or "big government?" Should we do away with all speed limits? Haven't you based a desire for increased sentences and ignition locks for DWI criminals on the same justification? Are you now retracting that position because it is the same argument Progressives used?

You stated: " And I am unclear what you are calling a dishonest argument --- the substitution point?"

What's dishonest is your continued insistence on saying that we can likely never have a complete cost/benefit analysis and then putting forth ONLY supposed "benefits" (e.g. tax income) of legalization while ignoring the costs. You cannot have it both ways, Doug, and it is dishonest to try.

You stated: "I am not a fan of taxes, but I see them here as a lesser evil to prohibition of commercial transactions and harmful big-government (and uneven) enforcement. Do you know of any libertarian who would prefer alcohol Prohibition to alcohol taxes? Who advocate for tobacco prohibition over tobacco taxes? And are libertarians part of my "ilk" or only lawyers?"

LOL Nice try, Doug. It's not a binary choice though, is it? Again, your faux libertarianism shines through. The correct answer is that a libertarian wants neither criminalization nor taxation. There is nothing saying that marijuana use needs to be taxed but it is how you thread the political needle. You use tax revenue! to get the left on board and then freedom! to try to get those on the right and form a majority coalition. Politically speaking that's fine, but it is not all that honest and definitely not "libertarian."

1) A whole lot of nothing. Try answering my question. It's pretty simple.

That said, let's talk about the honesty of your position. Actually, it's positions. Yours seem to change based on the argument that you need to defend. "Freedom" is freedom despite any cost/benefit analysis. Libertarians believe that we are free to do anything that we want up to the tip of someone else's nose. There is no cost/benefit analysis. If a person wants to self-destruct and die, we let them. Either be a libertarian...or don't.

It's the very reason that you do not answer the question, instead choosing to leave a bunch of pregnant phrases intended to get readers to infer your answer even though you never actually give it. If you are to be consistent, you MUST come out FOR hard drug legalization because your position has been that we cannot do an accurate cost/benefit analysis, so we must choose freedom. You will not say that though, because such a position is toxic and would undermine your marijuana position. What a dilemma for you!

2a) Yeah, but as a "libertarian", is it not the job of the parent to exercise "paternalism" over children and not the government? It's 'Notorious BGD,' "Big Government Doug!"

2b) You stated: "And though there are surely black markets in guns and alcohol and tobacco near plenty of playgrounds, I think we are doing a reasonable job balancing freedom and government in these commodities."

Gee, Doug, if we can handle balancing freedom and government on the playgrounds with kids then why can't we do it with adults? Oh, and how is that freedom "reasonably balanced" when people sell drugs at school? We throw them in prison for a VERY long time.

2c) You stated: "I would general favor trying marijuana under the same basic rules and follow closely how this is going."

I actually did "lol" at this one but I should be offended if you believe I am dumb enough to buy it. Let's stop pretending that you or any marijuana legalization types are going to "follow closely" and make any determination other than things are just peachy.

Finally, the football canard.

I'd like to say that you are comparing apples and oranges but it would be too generous. You are comparing apples and sofas.

I can come up with pages of benefits for a kid playing football but not a single one for the same kid smoking a joint. I got a genius idea though. TAX football! A libertarian's dream!

BTW, other sports, even supposed non-contact ones like soccer and baseball, have the same risks.

I find myself in the improbable position of agreeing with Professor Berman on at least some of this. I do not have a practical solution, but I do have more than three decades of dealing first hand with unlawful drugs and attempts to somehow impact that traffic in same. Here are my observations:

First, efforts to control narcotics (For this discussion, I'll use that term as synonymous with illegal dugs of any type) are frankly, doomed to failure. Period. We should have learned this lesson from Prohibition. When we make something illegal, but a significant portion of the population wishes to have such substance regardless of law, we simply create an underground market for the same. The viability of that black market (if you will) is never is doubt.

The habit-forming nature of the substances we seek to control are such that persons using most of the controlled substances eventually become fairly unfit to work or fit into society. They exist merely to get more drugs and get high. There is of course some sub-set able to continue to work or study, but eventually, the downward spiral takes over. (marijuana may be the exception, but the damage to health caused by marijuana is indisputable I think)

We should be honest about the nature of a drug addiction. It is not purely an illness, and it does create vast numbers of victim crimes. Those who are compulsive about using drugs often commit multiple crimes daily to support the habit. So this talk of treating drug addiction as a health issue is something of a false narrative.

What happens when law enforcement successfully impedes or removes one of the local criminal enterprises supplying the drugs? Street prices go up. It's really basic economics. When street prices rise, the crime associated with maintaining a habit go up too, because addicts need to pay more. So, the more successful government might be in reducing the trafficking, the government then becomes responsible for raises in associated property or persons crimes. This is quite common and easy to observe in action.

At the same time, if government is able to remove some trafficking organization, we create a power vacuum which typically leads to a period of violence, as other groups seek to assume the territory and market of that which was just removed. So successful drug enforcement efforts quite often increase the instability on the local black market, leading to mayhem and murder. This too is fairly easy to observe.

And the more efficient the drug control efforts, the more profit motive we offer for those continuing to deal. Successful interdiction leads to higher risk=higher rewards. We probably recruit people to deal drugs when the financial reward peaks (meaning, when drug interdiction is successful).

Now, what about the damage we do to society with these massive drug control efforts by law enforcement? Just my experience only, but I suspect this is fairly common. Cops and dealers are in a constant struggle to discover or conceal drug sales and drug movement. As the police improve finding and arresting those involved in the drug pipeline somewhere, the criminals react by become more sophisticated in hindering enforcement efforts, in both physical technique and legal attack. How much case law and legal precedent has been established by good or bad (mostly bad) law enforcement? This environment just begs for cops to shade the truth, to add a few details to that search warrant affidavit or Title III application. Cops are encouraged by the legal morass around drug warrants generally to, say, make informants more reliable, or observations to have more detail than reality. In other words, the process encourages cops to lie, however much their motives may be good. This is a progressive, corrupting influence, and it is very real. Undercover narcotics officers lie as a matter of course in daily employment. That's what they do, deceive drug dealers. It's a short jump to lying under oath on affidavits, especially given the cynicism about the legal system in most cops.

Then there is the straightforward issue of corrupt cops, lawyers and judges. There is so much money in the trafficking of unlawful narcotics, corruption is predictable and pervasive.

Finally, we are teaching some percentage of our young people contempt for government and the legal system. There can certainly be a reasonable argument for the hypocrisy of illegal drugs versus legal alcohol or cigarettes, for example.

The so-called war on drugs is a failure. For every success in arrest and prosecution, we create automatic rises in some associated unwanted behavior. And unless we start making the sale or trafficking in drugs an automatic life sentence or capital crime (which is not going to happen), we will never - never - stop people from engaging in such profitable activities. The only way to stop illegal drug sales, drug importation, drug trafficking is to remove the profits made possible by government interdiction.

How to accomplish that is beyond me. Just making drugs of any kind - including marijuana - legal, and predicting a tax windfall certainly is not the answer though.

Tarls, I have spent plenty of time looking for/at numbers showing harms of marijuana reform and I have said in this thread and others that there can be all sort of health and safety harms from increased access by kids to roadway safety to long-term health costs, etc. These harms seem to be similar to the societal harms we see from alcohol, which is why I bring up that parallel. And your attitude is telling here: big government criminalization is the status quo, so you but the burden on freedom to prove it obviously produces more good than harm. That is the presumption I flip, favoring freedom over government until government proves it obviously produces more good than harm. And that is why I keep saying this issue shows where one's basic instinct reside --- trusting government or trusting freedom and putting the burden on the other side. It is just fine you trust government more in this setting, but realize it is this kind of thinking that makes it so very hard to get less government in all sorts of settings.

You say, tarls, "no one was going to take alcohol away," but our nation passed a constitutional amendment to do just that and grew government. That highlights just how potent the kinds of arguments you make can be to grow government 100 years ago and should give you some concern about how these arguments get used to grow government today. That is the point I am trying to make again and again -- namely that the kinds of arguments you make are the mammon of big government forces everywhere and throughout american history. And again you reveal your core disaffinity for freedom when hinting that you generally would favor alcohol Prohibition if we could make it work (which, of course, is parallel to the gun prohibitionists who say we ought to try to make gun control work).

Criminalization is the worst form of big government in my view, tarls, and that is why reform of criminal laws that seem most problematic to me are my focus. This is especially true with respect to risky behaviors twice removed from direct harm. Murder directly harms another and drunk driving creates direct risks, whereas having a beer or smoking a joint is so far removed from direct harm I struggle to see this as obviously a part of the federal government's constitution obligations. Again, the alcohol history is telling: the nation realize 100 years ago that we needed a constitutional amendment to justify having the feds stop people from drinking; but now, after 100 years of government growth, you think it obvious that it is a core constitutional function for the feds to be able to stop Angel Raich from growing a plant in her own back yard that makes her feel better. If you cannot see how corrosive this thinking is to limiting government growth, I urge you to review who voted for and again the individual in Raich and who is for or against more and more government.

I agree that my libertarian commitments, tarls, are tempered by political and social reality. I would love a world in which Americans were responsible enough to not need lots of health and safety regulations and we would not need government to do much more than help ensure honest transactions in marketplaces. But in the short term I need to build coalitions to reduce the size of criminalization, and I keep trying to do so with very limited success in all sort of areas --- e.g., I keep yelling at Dems to support mens rea reform that the GOP wants. Here the tex revenues can help us move off crimnalization and so I am willing to start there and see where it takes us. Also, high taxes in the cigarette and alcohol arenas, the evidence shows, helps reduce kids access and problem users a bit.

Tarls, I call myself a libertarian because I generally prefer less government to more and always want to increase human freedoms "up to the tip of someone else's nose." But with all drug access/use, like driving and gun use and other inherently dangerous activities, the location of this tip is hard to assess and I support reasonable efforts to minimize the risks to others noses from, say drinking and driving. BUT, I would always favor private/civil means to enhance safety that big government criminalization. Ergo, I would like to try means to make more safe drugs and driving and guns without criminalization, though I recognize this can be hard. More to the point, I see how especially hard it is, in the face of problems, to keep the big government from growing to take on more of a role in our lives. And, again, my point is that those who claim to worry about the growth of government must come to terms with how the drug war like a prior war on alcohol has played a big role in both the culture and pragmatics of big government growth.

You miss the point of the football piece, because I was making the point that the argument is based squarely on the fact that we keep kids from alcohol and gun because they cannot be trusted to make sensible cost/benefit assessment and a scientist says we should do the same for this sport -- and soccer is in these conversations, too. I am not trying to convince you on the substance of any of this, rather I am continuing to try to get you to see what my initial point was, namely that advocacy for the big government war of drugs is based in the same force and arguments that justify a lot of other big government moves. I get that you continue to think the big government moves are justified here --- as did, of course, Mabel Walker Willebrandt. But 100 years of US history support my concern that these kinds of arguments are those that give us our modern nanny state. Perhaps the nanny of the feds are doing a great job, but I am always one eager to question whether the nanny is needed and always going to push to see the basis to justify the nanny treatment.

Thanks for the engaging and insightful observations, JC, and for what seem to be the informed and moderate perspective that fuels them. I surmise that tarls too readily associates me with extreme advocates for extreme reforms, whereas my goal in this thread is mostly just to flag the potential harms of big government arguments and commitments in this arena. Your points usefully document another important element of those harms.

The problem I see with a lot of the anti-drug-war stuff is that it creates a false dichotomy: treatment or punishment. But in reality the two go together - you can't force rehab without the threat of criminal punishment (see e.g. California's drug courts). How do you stop addicts from doing something that is legal? The fact is that drug users have made clear by their actions that they are unable to behave in their own best interest; for their own good, along with that of society, they need to be prevented from abusing drugs. Even if you believe people should be allowed to ruin their own lives, addicts invariably cause harm to others: whether to their family/children, resorting crime to fuel their habit, inability to work, etc.

If the claim is simply that we shouldn't incarcerate drug users, I imagine most people would agree with that. However, that is current policy - false narratives aside, those in jail for drugs are almost entirely [large scale] dealers. I don't see how freeing drug dealers would help addicts, or why they are somehow worthy of sympathy more than anyone else who routinely poisons people and ruins their lives.

Finally, it's perhaps worth noting that the gun analogy doesn't really work because guns are explicitly protected by the Constitution. Cost-benefit analysis isn't relevant in such a situation. That's obviously not the case for drugs.

-Jihan

Doug stated: "And your attitude is telling here: big government criminalization is the status quo, so you but the burden on freedom to prove it obviously produces more good than harm."

Doug, you just don't get to keep putting forth a false premise as true. Arguments on both sides have aspects of "freedom" (the ultimate freedom is to be able to walk down the street not worried about crime) and can be called big government (filling government coffers with tax dollars).

Thus, you don't get to do that.

You are suggesting a change. It is YOUR burden to show it will benefit the country, especially in light of the lower crime rates since the "drug war."

You stated: " That highlights just how potent the kinds of arguments you make can be to grow government 100 years ago and should give you some concern about how these arguments get used to grow government today."

Says the man whose most prominent argument FOR legalization is to give the government more tax money. You know, because money shrinks government power, right?

You stated: "And again you reveal your core disaffinity for freedom when hinting that you generally would favor alcohol Prohibition if we could make it work (which, of course, is parallel to the gun prohibitionists who say we ought to try to make gun control work)."

No need to use your favorite tactic, putting words in other peoples' mouths. Actually, I'd favor no need for alcohol prohibition. A nation where people drank responsibly. Same with weed. Unfortunately, they don't and it results in terrible results for the rest of us. Any kind of prohibition is the best of bad choices. Again, I love freedom. I just feel that the freedom of people who go to work every day, obey the law, raise their kids correctly, and contribute to society is more important than those who abuse kids, drive drunk, and grift. I'll put words in your mouth now and say you prefer the latter.

You stated: "BUT, I would always favor private/civil means to enhance safety that big government criminalization."

Impossible. ALL "private/civil" means work because of "government criminalization." I can sue someone and win but can only collect if the government will enforce the decision made by a governmental actor. If the person chooses not to pay, it is merely another layer of government that acts on my behalf.

So, stop dodging. Legalize hard drugs? To children?Yes or no? "Freedom" or no?

Tarls, I do not seek to put words in your mouth or to promote false premises, and I agree with you that both sides of this debate concern the nature and importance of different types of freedom and different types of government. These matters call for nuance (which I am not sure this comment format fosters), and I apologize if I have been using rhetoric that seems too binary (or too "lawyerly").

That said, in my first comment, I highlighted Lisa McGirr's interesting accounting of how alcohol Prohibition grew government in an effort to stress that one cannot and should not besmirch all those concerned with broad criminal prohibitions by saying they all must value those who "abuse kids, drive drunk, and grift." Against the backdrop of government growth in the last 100 years in the US and in other nations, I worry about all forms of government even when government agents are genuinely doing everything possible and in good faith to have less people "abuse kids, drive drunk, and grift."

This conversation is about whether and what types of "more government" and/or whether and what types of "more freedom" may work better to advance those goals. And, generally speaking, I favor efforts to achieve important social outcomes though means that involve less use of the (federal) criminal government powers.

In turn, the modern experiences of what I generally consider "softer" drugs --- ranging from alcohol to tobacco to refined sugar to now marijuana --- leads me to believe civil/regulatory regimes (with varied efforts to limit access/over-use by kids) are, generally speaking, doing a pretty good job balancing the benefits of personal freedom and the potential harms of allowing individuals to consume products for personal pleasure. I know lots of folks (mostly on the political left) who would like to see more and bigger and tougher government limits on tobacco and refined sugar, and you are among some folks (mostly on the political right) who are worried about reducing government limits on marijuana. For marijuana in particular, I would prefer less (federal) government control and more government research/information to better inform individual decision-making.

The harder drugs are harder at this particular moment because we have little experience with what "not-so-unhealthy" use of harder drugs might look like without prohibition regimes. The recent opioid experiences, where "not-so-unhealthy" prescription pill use has morphed into a huge public health problem, enhances my concern that we many not be a nation in which most people can/will be able to use hard drugs "responsibly." But Portugal seems to be pioneering a decriminalization approach to hard drugs which, according to some, might be a good alternative to criminal prohibition. But I do not want to move swiftly into a huge change on the harder drug front until we see how things go with marijuana reform. And I genuinely do think marijuana reform is developing with the kind of incrementalism that is very important and valuable for continue to inform this debate concern the nature and importance of different types of freedom and different types of government.

You stated: "Tarls, I do not seek to put words in your mouth or to promote false premises, and I agree with you that both sides of this debate concern the nature and importance of different types of freedom and different types of government."

As to the first part, you do it all of the time. As to the second, your words above in this thread do not match this statement. You constantly portray yourself as exclusively on the side of "freedom."

You stated: "And, generally speaking, I favor efforts to achieve important social outcomes though means that involve less use of the (federal) criminal government powers."

Not sure why you insert "federal" in here. I have been under the impression that you are against the drug war regardless of who is on the front lines. Are you saying that you would support states taking a very hard line on marijuana?

You stated: "In turn, the modern experiences of what I generally consider "softer" drugs --- ranging from alcohol to tobacco to refined sugar to now marijuana --- leads me to believe civil/regulatory regimes (with varied efforts to limit access/over-use by kids) are, generally speaking, doing a pretty good job balancing the benefits of personal freedom and the potential harms of allowing individuals to consume products for personal pleasure."

You are trying to have it both ways, Doug. On one hand, you claim that prohibition proved that the drug war is a miserable failure because it results in black markets and more crime. On the other hand, you say that a de facto prohibition on children using is working. If you can successfully prohibit a substance from kids (an even more difficult task because the substance is otherwise legal and more easily available than a completely banned substance), you can do it for adults.

Choose one.

You stated: "For marijuana in particular, I would prefer less (federal) government control and more government research/information to better inform individual decision-making."

There you go funneling money to "big government" again. It's hilarious. One of the biggest objects of scorn from the "legalize" crowd is the "Just Say No" campaign, yet here you are offering an equivalent program as the solution.

The truth is obvious to anyone who has taken a high school Psychology or Econ course. The more you make something readily available, the more people are going to get access to do it. The less available it is, the fewer people get access. The only way to turn this argument on its head is if you believe that more people smoking marijuana is good for society. Do you?

You stated: "The harder drugs are harder at this particular moment because we have little experience with what "not-so-unhealthy" use of harder drugs might look like without prohibition regimes. The recent opioid experiences, where "not-so-unhealthy" prescription pill use has morphed into a huge public health problem, enhances my concern that we many not be a nation in which most people can/will be able to use hard drugs "responsibly." "

But, "freedom?"

Doug, you cannot just end the "freedom" argument when it becomes inconvenient politically. There is no magic line with drugs where freedom should not apply. Once again, you try to have it both ways.

One more quick point about the "failure" of Prohibition.

"But the conventional view of Prohibition is not supported by the facts.

First, the regime created in 1919 by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, which charged the Treasury Department with enforcement of the new restrictions, was far from all-embracing. The amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages; it did not prohibit use, nor production for one's own consumption. Moreover, the provisions did not take effect until a year after passage -plenty of time for people to stockpile supplies.

Second, alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928.

Arrests for public drunkennness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Third, violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition. Homicide rates rose dramatically from 1900 to 1910 but remained roughly constant during Prohibition's 14 year rule. Organized crime may have become more visible and lurid during Prohibition, but it existed before and after.

Fourth, following the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption increased. Today, alcohol is estimated to be the cause of more than 23,000 motor vehicle deaths and is implicated in more than half of the nation's 20,000 homicides. In contrast, drugs have not yet been persuasively linked to highway fatalities and are believed to account for 10 percent to 20 percent of homicides.

Prohibition did not end alcohol use. What is remarkable, however, is that a relatively narrow political movement, relying on a relatively weak set of statutes, succeeded in reducing, by one-third, the consumption of a drug that had wide historical and popular sanction."

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/16/opinion/actually-prohibition-was-a-success.html

it is truly rich, tarls, that you accuse me of putting words in your mouth and then say I "constantly portray yourself as exclusively on the side of 'freedom'." I am not "exclusively" on the side of anything, and I find many discussions with you much worse that discussions with lawyers because of this kind of silliness. The core of the silliness is you eagerness to attack in one paragraph for being too concerned about freedom and then in the next for being too willing to allow for civil regulations. Your own peculiar characterizations of "freedom" or "government" make it easy for you to wage a two-front war on my sincere efforts to explain my perspective, but it is tiresome and not especially informative.

In this peculiar characterization vein is the strange notion, normatively or descriptively, that we must treat/regulate kids and adults the same with respect to drug prohibitions or anything else. To my knowledge, no serious philosophy or society has ever treated kids and adults the same for all purposes (though all societies struggle with how/when to draw a kids/adults line).

Finally, I do not at all disagree that prohibition helps reduces access and reduce use, and for reason I continue to agree that ending prohibition of marijuana will increase use, just like ending alcohol prohibition increased use. But because I think individuals, generally speaking, should be able to think and do and say what they want without undue government control, I am generally okay with ending alcohol prohibition and marijuana prohibition (and gun prohibition and gambling prohibition) even though this means more people will have access to substances/activities that can involve self harm and will lead also to harm to others.

I surmise from this conversation, tarls, that you are more comfortable with a command-and-control form of government where a set of government agents decide what is good or bad for individuals to do and then engineer prohibitions and policies accordingly for the good of the society. (And it seems you wish we had not given up on alcohol Prohibition and might even endorse some cigarette and sugar prohibitions.) I am not saying any of this in an effort to put words in your mouth. I am saying it because it gets to the heart of my very first comment here --- namely that the arguments Bill was making in the main post and that you make to support the modern drug war are arguments that support more government regulating more people for more reasons in the name of benefits to society.

At this stage, tarls, I do not think it makes much sense to further debate the particular, but I would like your sense of whether I am misguided in believing that you are here, generally speaking, making "more government" arguments in opposition to my efforts to make "less government" arguments. I ask because I do not want to put words in your mouth, but I do want to know if I misunderstand the heart and implications of your arguments.

Doug, seriously?

Here is what I find "rich". You completely ignoring my point to concentrate on a single word, "exclusively." Yep, I freely admit that you did not use that word. However, is it necessary for me to go back and count time after time where you portray Bill or myself as "big government conservatives" when it comes to MMs or the drug war and you on the side of "freedom?" Do we REALLY have to go there? Nearly all of your posts on these topics are pregnant with the implication if not outright accusation.

You stated: "The core of the silliness is you eagerness to attack in one paragraph for being too concerned about freedom and then in the next for being too willing to allow for civil regulations."

Nope. Don't confuse an attack on your attempts to have it both ways with an attack on "civil regulations."

If I had used the word "silly" or "silliness" twice in a paragraph, I would be accused of bringing "more heat than light."

You stated: "Your own peculiar characterizations of "freedom" or "government" make it easy for you to wage a two-front war on my sincere efforts to explain my perspective, but it is tiresome and not especially informative."

I am waging a two front war because you opened both fronts with your "have my cake and eat it too" arguments.

And what is "peculiar" about calling increased taxation "big government?" I thought "libertarians" believed that. What is peculiar about describing walking down the street without worry that a drug user will rip you off as "freedom?" Methinks the veil has slipped.

You stated: "To my knowledge, no serious philosophy or society has ever treated kids and adults the same for all purposes (though all societies struggle with how/when to draw a kids/adults line)."

Nor am I saying we should treat them the same here. I suspect you know that but need an oasis in the storm. However, the same human nature applies. If legality makes society stronger, legality for children will do the same. If criminalization increases black markets, crime, and drug usage as your ilk claims, it will do the same if we criminalize it for children. Human nature does not change much from 15 to 18. The problem is not my wanting the same treatment for kids and adults. It is a lack of intellectual consistency in your arguments.

And don't think I do not have a pretty good idea of why you chose "children" to make this point about rather than legalizing hard drugs for adults, another question I asked of you.

You stated: "Finally, I do not at all disagree that prohibition helps reduces access and reduce use, and for reason I continue to agree that ending prohibition of marijuana will increase use, just like ending alcohol prohibition increased use."

That's kind of selective reading, don't you think? Sure, the data I provided discusses usage, but also things like crime. Do you or do you not put forth prohibition as a failure because it increases black markets, crime, etc? Does or does not the data I supplied at least provide a prima facie refutation of it?

You stated: "I surmise from this conversation, tarls, that you are more comfortable with a command-and-control form of government where a set of government agents decide what is good or bad for individuals to do and then engineer prohibitions and policies accordingly for the good of the society. (And it seems you wish we had not given up on alcohol Prohibition and might even endorse some cigarette and sugar prohibitions.) I am not saying any of this in an effort to put words in your mouth. I am saying it because it gets to the heart of my very first comment here --- namely that the arguments Bill was making in the main post and that you make to support the modern drug war are arguments that support more government regulating more people for more reasons in the name of benefits to society."

I was not going to comment on that other than to point to your loud condemnation in this VERY SAME POST about my saying that you paint those who disagree with you as "big government" and you as about "freedom," but I have to add something.

My point this entire thread has been this, intellectual consistency and purity does not exist. There are always exceptions, as some issues are just too large. However, you have this unbridled passion to hold everyone else to some type of "purity standard" while ignoring it for yourself. IMO, it's a debate tactic more than a heartfelt belief, but so be it.

Yes, I believe in "freedom, contrary to your many claims otherwise. However, drug use is too culturally rotting for government to condone. Just as we do not have an absolute right to gun ownership (felons cannot own, we cannot carry in certain locations, etc.), other freedoms are curtailed as well. Even the FFs were not as absolutist as you are requiring others to be in this thread.

The problem is that you do not even come close to living to the same purity standard you set for me. Giving tens of billions to the Federal government in tax revenue is not "freedom", it is feeding the beast. Giving civil courts more power than criminal courts is not smaller government, just a different judge in a different courtroom running the show on behalf of the government. I care more for my freedom to walk down the street unimpeded by the drug addled or his child to not be abused than his freedom to put crank in his body.

That some "big government" types (command and control, as you might say to get a reaction), may use the same justification is completely irrelevant. There is a difference between sugar and crank. Sugar makes no one more likely to beat their kids or rob a liquor store. The EPA regulating runoff to a personal pond on my property is a bad idea but regulating highly hazardous chemicals on the same property is likely a good one even though both can be called "command and control" or "big government." Your argument is a kind of weird moral equivalence logical fallacy. Football is not equivalent to drugs regardless of whether the same "big government" argument is used. Obamacare is a much bigger vandalism of the constitution than criminalizing drugs could ever be.

One final point. Putting words in peoples' mouths and then saying that you are not intending to put words in peoples' mouths is still putting words in peoples' mouths.

First time commenter. I came to the site from Powerline, I think.

I go back and forth about legalization, but usually I come back to the idea that laws are an expression of the values of the people, and the ubiquitous use of drugs is something the people (including me) finds distasteful.

That said, I would be even more solid about criminalization if the vehicles of abuse of civil liberties which seem to gather around the "drug war" were eradicated, primarily civil asset forfeiture. This practice is a stain on our liberty, legal thievery by law enforcement, always justified by the need to drain criminals' pockets. But even then, the criminals have due process, too, and I'm very tired of hearing law-abiding citizens' stories of being bankrupted by fighting law enforcement for return of their own money.

If that stopped, I'd gladly support criminalization; until it does, I'm soft on it.

Welcome, CFKane.

I agree with much of your premise, but I would rather see reform of CAF than to abolish the practice.

Draining drug cartels of their lifeblood is a critical step but we absolutely need to pull back on the reigns. Some grandmother whose grandson is selling pot from his bedroom should not lose her house. The biggest issue, as I see it, is that LEOs and DA offices are motivated to push the envelope because they benefit from it. We need to take away the incentive so that only the most obvious cases are handled in such a manner.

Douglas, do you see CAF as a "freedom" option rather than incarceration?

Tarls, I am not trying to "accuse" you or Bill of anything in these discussions, nor am I demanding purity or "requiring" you or others to be absolutists. I am expressing my belief/fear that the arguments used to support ever more (big?) government power/resources to support drug prohibitions help foster/facilitate/strengthen arguments for giving (big?) government ever more power/resources in all sorts of other spheres --- from tobacco to food to football to guns to speech to health care to CAF, and so on. And I further fear that every time government grows in any sphere, it is that much harder to restrain or shrink it in every sphere.

You see plenty of (quite valid) distinctions between sugar and smack and beer and football, and so do I. That makes us both sensible, not impure, but I also I believe an instinctual trust/distrust for more/less government (particularly criminal enforcement) will often inform which kinds of big government powers are thought worth preserving/expanding. The kid/adult point perhaps gets at this another way: generally speaking, I would much rather the government treat 15-year-olds like adults than have the government treat all adults like we were 15-year-olds. All governments are going to act in a parental role, but I am inclined to view the nanny state as a malignant force rather than a benign one. Perhaps the nanny state was fundamentally benign in the form of alcohol Prohibition in the past and is benign in the form of marijuana prosecution now. But the history suggests to me that it is hard to keep the nanny from wanting to do more and more for the sake of the collective. See, e.g., Obamacare.

I get that you think "Obamacare is a much bigger vandalism of the constitution than criminalizing drugs could ever be," but if Raich comes out the other way we might never even get Obamacare and the timber of the constitutional arguments is surely altered. I am not claiming direct lines here, but rather seek merely to explain my belief that spirit and justifications of arguments for the state having more and more power to "protect" are not easily limited to just "bad drugs" or even just "bad hombres".

I get that you see drug use as different in kind because it strikes you as "too culturally rotting for government to condone." Fair enough, but I have even more fear of governments having broad powers to decide and criminally prohibit what it considers "culturally rotting" more than I fear people doing drugs. (Your terminology here is especially jarring for me, as a jew, because my ancestors were often accused by all sorts of governments of contributing to "cultural rot").

You stated: " (Your terminology here is especially jarring for me, as a jew, because my ancestors were often accused by all sorts of governments of contributing to "cultural rot")."

I find the implication of this statement, frankly, appalling, insulting, and beneath you. I'm not sure you are worth conversing with further.

Was just trying, tarls, to explain why my background makes me perhaps distinctly sensitive about governments using their powers to address "cultural rot." I do not mean to imply that I think you or the US govt will head down a totalitarian path, and I am sorry the comment can be read that way. But the term strikes a nerve and it is the same nerve that, for me, makes me ever worried about all arguments on behalf of all government powers.

Sorry again if my expression of feelings was so off putting that you want to stop conversing with me or my ilk. I get a lot and learn a lot from you and I appreciate that you have talked me me up to this point.

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