Pubdate: Sat, 09 Jul 2011
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2011 The Economist Newspaper Limited

The War on Drugs


How to Make Sense of Drugs Policy

Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know. By Mark Kleiman, 
Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken. Oxford University Press USA; 256 
pages; $16.95.

THE war on drugs, like the war on terror, is proving a dear and 
dreary struggle against faceless enemies on shifting terrain. The 
latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 
(UNODC), published on June 23rd, gives little reason to think it is being won.

In America, where cannabis consumption had been falling, the UNODC 
thinks it is staging a comeback, along with ecstasy. In western 
Europe use of cannabis is stable, but it has increased in eastern 
Europe and Latin America. In Asia synthetic stimulants are on the rise.

More illegal substances are produced in the country in which they are 
consumed, whether cannabis in London or ecstasy and crystal meth in 
Indonesia. Fast-changing designer drugs are marketed before 
regulators have figured out whether to outlaw them, and the line 
between using drugs to combat medical conditions and taking them 
simply to improve performance--in exams, sports or sex--is 
increasingly blurred. Against a backdrop of violence in producer 
countries such as Mexico and Colombia, and mass incarceration in 
consumer countries including America and Britain, the argument over 
what to do about drugs is escalating.

So there has rarely been greater need for a cool, dispassionate voice 
to sift through the facts. Indeed, three such voices speak in this 
book. Mark Kleiman teaches public policy at the University of 
California, Los Angeles; he has written influentially about drug 
policy for a couple of decades. Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken, 
occasional co-authors, teach at Carnegie Mellon and Pepperdine 
universities respectively.

Dedicated to the families and friends of substance abusers, and the 
professionals who work with them, "Drugs and Drug Policy" is a 
practical book which aims to debunk myths. It is where you go to look 
up how to compare the pharmacological risk inherent in different 
substances (there is a table), whether such a thing as an "addictive 
personality" exists that can predict susceptibility to drugs (not as 
such), or the consequences of legalising drugs in countries that are 
said to have done so (none really has, despite loose talk about 
Portugal and the Netherlands).

The authors are at their most interesting when they breeze with that 
same assumption of airy neutrality through what are in fact 
politically charged questions about policy. In 2009 Mr Kleiman wrote 
the best book in years on penal reform, another subject with a strong 
whiff of the culture wars. In "When Brute Force Fails" he argued that 
continuing to lock up offenders en masse was neither affordable nor 
desirable; what was needed was a smarter approach to enforcement, 
with strategically chosen targets pour encourager les autres and 
swifter, shorter, surer sentences to influence individual conduct.

The authors show the same instincts this time, looking at strategies 
for putting away dealers (focus on the violent ones), treating 
addiction (save your money for addicts who really can't go straight 
on their own) and so forth. Two successful "coerced abstinence" 
programmes come in for particular praise. Hope, a programme in 
Hawaii, tells offenders on probation who are involved with drugs to 
ditch the habit, against the certainty of a prompt, short but 
escalating jail sentence if they fail the frequent drug tests. Drug 
use has plummeted: one year into the programme, 80% of the 
probationers have been drug-free for three months or more. Another 
scheme, Sobriety 24/7, takes the same brusque approach with repeat 
drunk-drivers in South Dakota, testing them twice a day to see if 
they have had a drink. More than two-thirds of the group never "blow 
hot", and drunk-driving arrests are down by more than half even after 
the ex-offenders are no longer subject to testing.

Mr Kleiman's views on the great question of the day--whether drugs 
should be legalised--are nuanced. He appreciates that legalising 
drugs could reduce the violence surrounding the trade and the 
degradation of serious abusers, but values the role he thinks 
prohibition plays in limiting consumption. This paper has long 
advocated legalisation, but has never claimed it was a trouble-free 
decision. There is plenty of common ground with this thoughtful and 
clearly written book.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom