5 2008

Take his word, our drug policies are working.

Today’s Wall Street Journal features two opinion pieces, one by our commander of the War on Drugs, John Walters, and the other by one of the war’s most respected critics, Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Ethan’s piece gives historical evidence to show how prohibitive policies inflate the value of drugs and create great profit incentive for criminals to push the substances, provide no safety control, and corner their market violently. We see this currently in Mexico. He encourages “vigorous and informed debate” and feels our drug war leaders have issued a “prohibition on thinking”.

Nadelman: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C

…70% of Swiss voters approved a referendum this past weekend endorsing the government’s provision of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts who could not quit their addictions by other means … a growing number of other countries, including Canada, are doing likewise.

Ethan also cites statements of intent to reform made by our own President-elect; to repeal the harshest drug sentences; to remove federal bans on needle-exchange programs to reduce AIDS; to end DEA interference with state medical marijuana laws; to support treatment alternatives for low-level drug offenders. Obama ostensibly is a thinker open to evidence; drug policies need more of this.

Walters does give some numbers that paint a rosy picture that drugs are all but licked:

Walters: Reported drug use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders has declined for six straight years. Teen use of cocaine, marijuana and inhalants is down significantly…

(I’m looking for the source of this)

…while consumption of methamphetamine and hallucinogens like LSD and Ecstasy has all but collapsed.

Collapsed? This doesn’t appear to be true:

NIH Nov 2007: Concurrently, there has been an increase in past-year MDMA (ecstacy) use in 10th and 12th graders over the past two years … For the third year in a row, there was a decrease in perceived harmfulness of MDMA among eighth graders. Among 10th graders, there was a decrease in perceived harmfulness of LSD and MDMA and a decrease in disapproval of LSD.

Well if it’s been declining certainly marijuana use must be low…

past-year marijuana use among 12th graders registers at 31.7 percent.

Is that success? May we compare statistics from less prohibitive countries?

Many of the claims Walters makes don’t directly show that the drug problem is being solved at all:

Walters: The number of workplace tests that are positive for cocaine is down sharply

Does that prove coke use is down? It could mean coke users are being pushed out of jobs that test. We know they’re pushed towards prisons.

Even the sudden spike of meth use — remember the headlines from just a few years ago? — has yielded to a combination of state and federal regulations controlling meth ingredients.

This is at least more pragmatic than our other policies; it more tightly regulates a legal substance instead of raising the punishment of end users.

…crackdowns in Colombia and Mexico have caused the price of cocaine to roughly double in the past two years.

Has this measurably helped people? Our efforts certainly aren’t reducing harm in Mexico right now.

It should be pretty obvious that when the Coast Guard seizes, as they did last March, a one-month supply of cocaine destined for the U.S. market from Colombia, availability on U.S. streets is going to suffer.

Can we count Walters’ personal promise of lowered availability as evidence? The numbers don’t look so good:

NYT Jul 2008: …despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent battling the cartels, it has hardly made a dent in the cocaine trade. … While seizures are up, so are shipments. According to United States government figures, 1,421 metric tons of cocaine were shipped through Latin America to the United States and Europe last year — 39 percent more than in 2006. And despite massive efforts at eradication, the United Nations estimates that the area devoted to growing coca leaf in the Andes expanded 16 percent last year.

So those were Walters facts, now we get to the fallacies!

It is hard to imagine an aspect of American life that would be enriched by millions of new cocaine, heroin or marijuana users.

So any reforms away from the status quo would necessarily guarantee millions of new users of every drug? Does evidence support this? Here’s contrary common sense: Before the prohibition of cannabis in 1937 and the Nixon’s ramp up in 1969, American society seemed to function just fine; we won wars, we worked to put men on the moon, all while drugs were more mildy prohibited.

Walters: …we know what works, and that is moral seriousness.

Is this “seriousness” scientifically rigorous? If it has worked for over a decade, shouldn’t we be about done with drugs instead of barely staying above water?

Driving down the availability of dangerous drugs requires all the skills of agencies such as the DEA and local law enforcement.

Is this because Walters say so? If the availability of all dangerous drugs is trending downward, why do we pay more every year to fight them?

Hopefully when [Obama] makes his first decisions he will think about Rev. McCain, Judge Norman and Ms. Brady, and how much less effective their work would be in isolation.

Why would their work be in isolation? No one in the reform community is calling for the removal of programs with positive effective outcomes.

What many reform-desiring individuals like myself are seeking is rational public debate with, and among, our public servants; honest acknowledgements of scientific evidence; consideration of alternative approaches; reconsideration of polices that have traded great harm for minimal, if any, measurable gains; willingness to experiment with policies of other nations that have lower drug use and societal harm.

This “moral seriousness” is expensive and is spinning its wheels.

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