Taking on the Drug Enforcement Complex

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Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who was elected in 2004 largely based on his criticism of New York state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws, is catching flak for his condemnation of the U.S. war on drugs at a recent harm reduction conference in Vancouver. Urging Canadians to stay as far away from the U.S. model as possible, Soares faulted the American approach for imposing long sentences on nonviolent offenders and disproportionately imprisoning minorities–familiar tropes in the rhetoric of left-liberal critics who prefer a kinder, gentler drug policy emphasizing treatment and rehabilitation. What really seems to have irked Soares' critics back home, however, is his suggestion that law enforcement (and corrections) employees resist reform because it's in their financial interest to do so.

I think their motivation is generally more complex: Humans have an impressive ability to see their own interests as perfectly compatible with the greater good, and I suspect most people who make a living off the drug war sincerely believe they are helping to make the world a better place–or at least preventing it from becoming a worse place. Although it does not happen very often, such people can be persuaded that they're wrong; witness the former drug warriors at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. But implying that they're disingenuous by citing their financial stake in the status quo is probably not the best way of going about it. Nor does the imputation of pecuniary motives carry any logical weight: The fact that a drug agent's job depends on prohibition does not mean he's wrong to think the benefits of the war on drugs outweigh its costs.

Then again, it's undeniable that many individuals, agencies, organizations, and businesses benefit from the current policy, and those interests do help explain its persistence. Soares' audience at the Vancouver conference certainly would have been receptive to that message, but I'm not sure it's the right theme to push for broader consumption.

Update: Soares responded to his critics yesterday.

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  1. Maybe you journalists are a bit too sensitive to the allegations of pecuniary interest creating bias (and I admit it has been taken too far in some instances), but avoiding the issue of the interest of LE and corrections in keeping the system going is not smart. These professions put out an amazing amount of pro-drugwar literature that gets very widely distributed. If you only have a few seconds to discredit it (which is often all you have) to get someone to listen to you on the in-depth stuff, the pecuniary interest angle is one that everyone understands.

    I do agree that it is subconscious for most of them, as people almost always see the “public good” as coinciding with “personal good”. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

  2. Most people don’t use drugs, don’t think they ought to be legal but really don’t pay much attention to the issue. I think if they did and thought about it rationally, they would not support minimum manditories. Instead, when they do think about it, it is in the context of hyperbole of “drug kingpins” and “people selling drugs to our childen” put out by the drug warriors. Why is the rethoric so over the top by the drug warriors? Some of them no doubt really believe that stuff. Some of them, however, believe it because they are getting rich. There is a prison industrial complex. I think this guy is absolutely right.

  3. To a free-market supporter the fact that human beings act in their own self-interest should not be a fallacy, but a Cornerstone of any free market society.

    Why do libertarians shy away from those who have the courage of their convictions?

    When a politician speaks “wrongly”, we should call them on it. But, as far as I can tell from this post, when a politician speaks “truly”, we should cower and worry if the Mao’s (who thought what he was doing was good for the people too) will be offended?

    People act in their own self interst. When did libertarians really start thingking this was a logical fallacy?

  4. Great post Jacob. Thanks for keeping an eye on the Vancouver conference.

    As far as the WOD being self-serving to law enforcement, I think that even more that bigger budgets and paramilitary toys. The biggest seduction is power. The WOD’s is the single biggest factor in the loss of liberty at the hand of the state. Cops get away with, warrant-less searches, brutality, theft, etc. because of the popular support for the WOD.

    As for the more ingenuous motivations of law enforcement, I think they suffer from myopia. They only deal with lowlifes or people who are in trouble. They mistakenly conclude that drugs are generally associated with such people and problems. They don’t appreciate that the vast majority of (decent tax-paying) drug users successfully hide their illegal lifestyle from eyes of the law.

  5. At least this guy sticks up for himself – I wish the Mexican president had balls that big. He proposed a sane drug policy in Mexico for, what, one entire day before caving?

  6. Not only is it self interest, it’s obedience to authority as demonstrated by Stanley Milgram.

    The quotes coming from Jerry Jennings are almost verbatim the prods given to the “teachers” in Milgram’s experiments.

  7. most people who make a living off the drug war sincerely believe they are helping to make the world a better place

    It’s a good point worth noting, but just because people delude themselves into thinking they’re saving the world does not mean we ought to give a crap about how they feel.

    Plenty of educated and otherwise-intelligent engineers, chemists, and other scientists who live off the public teat are able to convince themselves that designing atomic bombs and ever more lethal forms of airborne poison are all a necessary part of defending the fatherland.

    That they foam at the mouth with rage and anus-clenching fear anytime someone suggests budget cuts at the DoD can be called patriotism, as long as we understand that in doing so we’re not striving for maximum descriptive accuracy.

  8. “To a free-market supporter the fact that human beings act in their own self-interest should not be a fallacy, but a Cornerstone of any free market society.

    Why do libertarians shy away from those who have the courage of their convictions?”

    Johnny, see the above. Click the links. Where did anyone mention the word “fallacy”? Here’s what it DID say:

    “On Tuesday, Soares got a standing ovation from 1,500 convention delegates representing 93 countries when he said U.S. lawmakers, judges and prosecutors know the system doesn’t work well, “but they support it anyway because it provides law enforcement officials with lucrative jobs.”

    Fallacy? Huh?

    Either way, acting in one’s own self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing—but when it also means that, for example, you will be infringing upon the rights of others by doing so, then it’s perfectly ‘libertarian’ to call them out on it.

    Just because someone acts in their own self-interest does not mean that their actions are justified. And, again, perhaps I missed it, but, when did anyone say anything about a logical fallacy?

  9. but I’m not sure it’s the right theme to push for broader consumption.

    That’s probably the case. Pecuniary interest is a perfectly good way to impeach a witness’ credibility in a courtroom, but it doesn’t seem to wash on a larger scale. Once upon a time, certain conservatives lambasted labor unions for opposing NAFTA. To my recollection, this was not the most successful attempt at tarring and feathering.

    There are probably whole counties out there whose only business is the State Pen. You’ve got thousands of young ex-military guys out there whose primary marketable skill is hunting down The Enemy. You lay into the economic self-interest angle, and all you do is remind these people who their daddy is.

  10. I think their motivation is generally more complex: Humans have an impressive ability to see their own interests as perfectly compatible with the greater good, and I suspect most people who make a living off the drug war sincerely believe they are helping to make the world a better place–or at least preventing it from becoming a worse place.

    This is not the alternative to a financial conflict of interest problem. Rather, this is how a financial conflict of interest problem looks when you see it in real life.

    “This is exactly what I would have done/said/written even if nobody paid me.” I have the same reaction to that as when somebody tells me they are Napoleon.

  11. Nor does the imputation of pecuniary motives carry any logical weight: The fact that a drug agent’s job depends on prohibition does not mean he’s wrong to think the benefits of the war on drugs outweigh its costs.

    No, but it does mean you shouldn’t grant too much weight to his expertise.

    The argument from authority isn’t always a bad idea: If you have an itchy rash, you ask a doctor what medicine to take and you follow his advice. Presumably, he’s got a rational explanation for his recommendation, but you don’t need to hear it, because you know he’s an expert.

    On the other hand, if you find out he gets a kickback from the manufacturer, you’d be less likely to accept his recommendation without considering the logic and evidence.

  12. Won’t somebody save me from well-intentioned busybodies? How do we declare “war” on them?

    I blame the schools; actually, I blame the Degreed Educators who run the school system. A curriculum which made some effort to teach logic and critical thought would be nice. Unfortunately, critical thinking does not lend itself to the multiple-choice testing format (or classroom discipline) and would inevitably lead to “chaos.”

  13. Nobody picked up on this? ‘Albany County Sheriff James Campbell said, “For 41 years I’ve been doing this…”‘

    See, the system works! It’s kept this man employed for 41 years!

  14. To a free-market supporter the fact that human beings act in their own self-interest should not be a fallacy, but a Cornerstone of any free market society.

    “people acting in their own self-interest” is not synonymous with a free market society. Bank robbers are acting in their self-interest, after all, but the violation of other’s property rights that occurs as they pursue their self-interest is the antithesis of a free market.

    suspect most people who make a living off the drug war sincerely believe they are helping to make the world a better place

    Not to go all Godwin on you, but Hitler thought killing the Jews would make the world a better place. Everyone convinces themselves they are making a better world. It doesn’t matter how authoritarian assholes feel in their hearts; what matters is how they affect the real world.

  15. RC Dean finds there to be no difference between first degree murder and lesser charges.

    Apparantly there is no difference between a person who plots and then executes a murder and the person who kills someone recklessly (DUI versus home invasion for example).

    Motive does indeed matter.

    Try the a “motive doesn’t matter” on a homicide cop sometime. Watch them laugh when you do. (not presented as proof, just a suggestion for some fun)

    And besides that, I was making an Adam Smith reference, but apparently it went right over everyones heads.

    and Evan,

    It seemed implied to me. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have re-read the post, and I still think it implies that assertion.

    Then again, I was raised on Heinlen, so I believe everyone motivates based on self-interest, that there are no “true” altruists. I don’t believe someone like (to godwin up the the arguement as RC has) Hitler actually cared a hill O’ beans for his fellow Germans.

    But hey, no doubt I’m wrong about this all.

    Ho Hum.

  16. If you have an itchy rash, you ask a doctor what medicine to take and you follow his advice. Presumably, he’s got a rational explanation for his recommendation, but you don’t need to hear it, because you know he’s an expert.

    I wouldn’t. First I’d do a web search and see what OTC meds or other remedies might work, perhaps get a quick diagnosis of the rash and then try it. If I’m at the drugstore, I may ask the pharmacist since they are the ones educated on drugs, not doctors. If the problem persists, then I see a doctor and tell him what I’ve tried.

    The correct presumption is the doctor is going to look up what drug to try in the PDR. There’s plenty of arrogant doctors around who love prescribing meds because suggesting OTC’s removes a bit of the fascination of the doctor’s authority. Same goes for cops, nurses, lawyers, priests, mullahs, teachers, journalists, and most of those other “noble” professions.

    So the phrase “I think their motivation is generally more complex” might have been pretty much true when the drug war started; it may still be true of the newcomers. But how gullible do you have to be to belive such a thing after 41 years? That’s denial masked as optimism.

  17. Warren – irt cops, their attitudes, and why they have them, I say the exact same thing all the time.

    A while back, somebody took some exception to that, but I still stand by it. Glad to see you in the same boat.

  18. oh man it’s a shitstorm here in the capital region…I got into a good fight with Mayor Jerry Jennings on the local radio this morning (he takes calls on his own show once a week).

    The people around here would bend over to take it in the ass from a cop and thank him for it, just for being a cop. We learned this yesterday when the video of another local cop was released (by David Soares) “unloading” a 70 year old HANDCUFFED drunk man from a paddywagon by grabbing him by the ankles, nobody else helping, and dragging him out, smashing his head on the rear bumper in “ohhhhh that had to hurt! – lucky he’s not dead” style.

  19. The local paper had a great editorial on the situation. Click my name below for the link.

  20. RC Dean finds there to be no difference between first degree murder and lesser charges. Apparantly there is no difference between a person who plots and then executes a murder and the person who kills someone recklessly (DUI versus home invasion for example). Motive does indeed matter.

    RC’s point was that pure motives don’t matter when the person is doing evil. Hitler’s motive was to make the world into what he thought would be a better place. Bin Laden’s motive is to rid the world of what he considers evil. Torquemada’s motive was to make the world better. But the motives of these men don’t matter–what they did was vile, and can’t be excused by “they thought they were doing the right thing.”

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