Taking on the Drug Enforcement Complex


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.