Drug Policy

Soundbite: Drug War Heretic


Few topics generate more bad trips than drug policy, with prohibitionists often acting like the wigged-out PCP users who still haunt drug-czar-approved TV scripts. For their part, legalizers sometimes substitute outrage for command of the relevant facts. Into such a trippy arena comes Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places (Cambridge University Press).

Written by Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter—professors of public policy at the University of California and the University of Maryland—the book is a detailed and dispassionate discussion of how the U.S. might best decide the legal status of drugs. Whether drug warriors will respect the authors' conclusion that current drug policies need to be rethought—and whether legalizers will applaud the relatively modest reforms supported by MacCoun and Reuter—is anybody's guess. But both camps would do well to come to terms with the wealth of information and analysis in Drug War Heresies.

Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie spoke with Peter Reuter in December.

Q: What other vices, times, and places are most relevant to current U.S. drug policy?

A: Vices include alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and prostitution. Times include America when cocaine was legal. And places include Western Europe, where over the past two decades there has been a shift from very tough prohibition to some notably different regimes.

The question with all of these is, What can we learn from these different experiences? There are different tradeoffs with all policies, and there should be some experiments here.

Q: You and your co-author strive for balance but admit that your "own sympathies are with the reform effort, at least in its best intentioned, least dogmatic form." Why?

A: The string of negative adjectives to describe current policies is endless. Maybe we are better off with current policies than with legalization. But surely there are other, more effective ways of limiting or prohibiting drug use or its negative outcomes. We're not all that concrete on what those things are, but they include, for example, arresting fewer people.

Q: Where do you see drug policy going?

A: Until a year or so ago, unrelenting pessimism toward any change was warranted. Polls suggest that there is enough popular discontent that you can imagine a change to more freedom in some areas, especially related to medical uses of marijuana. The public believes nothing works, but they don't necessarily want to try something very different. It was a six-year struggle to change the strict Rockefeller laws in New York, and there's still an extraordinarily harsh regime in place. On the federal level, I can't see any change for a very long time.