Mark Kleiman's 'Radical' Yet 'Practical' Drug Policy Agenda


UCLA's Mark Kleiman, who has long distinguished himself as one of the few thoughtful, intellectually honest drug policy experts who nevertheless manage to be consulted by people in power, has an essay in the January/February issue of The American Interest calling for "radical rather than incremental" (yet "practical") changes in the way the government deals with intoxicants. His proposals include less incarceration of drug dealers, more-sophisticated drug education, reducing the government scrutiny that discourages adequate pain treatment, making drug law enforcement a lower priority in foreign policy, allowing the regulated use of performance-enhancing drugs, permitting religious and psychotherapeutic uses of psychedelics, eliminating the drinking age, and legalizing possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use. Kleiman's ideas are not as radical as I'd like, and some of them (e.g., higher alcohol taxes and, depending on what it means in practice, "coerced abstinence") move in the wrong direction. But on the whole we'd be substantially better off if his advice were followed. In the meantime the drug policy debate could benefit by absorbing some data-driven, Kleimanesque wisdom:

We have a highly intrusive and semi-militarized drug enforcement effort that is often only marginally constitutional and sometimes more than marginally indecent…

Most drug use is harmless, and much of it is beneficial…No harm, no foul. Mere use of an abusable drug does not constitute a problem demanding public intervention. "Drug users" are not the enemy, and a achieving a "drug-free society" is not only impossible but unnecessary to achieve the purposes for which the drug laws were enacted….

"Compulsive" isn't the same as "involuntary": Addicts can and do respond to the conditions and consequences of their behavior….Most substance abuse disorders resolve "spontaneously"; that is, without formal treatment….

The average incarcerated dealer commits fewer predatory crimes than the average non-drug prisoner, so filling cells with dealers while prison space is scarce tends on balance to increase the rate of property and violent crime….

There is no one "solution" to the drug problem…Any set of policies will therefore leave us with some level of substance abuse—with attendant costs to the abusers themselves, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers and the public—and some level of damage from illicit markets and law enforcement efforts. Thus the "drug problem" cannot be abolished either by "winning the war on drugs" or by "ending prohibition." In practice the choice among policies is a choice of which set of problems we want to have….The overarching goal of policy should be to minimize the damage done to drug users and to others from the risks of the drugs themselves (toxicity, intoxicated behavior and addiction) and from control measures and efforts to evade them.

Kleiman tends to put too much faith in the government's ability to weigh all the relevant costs and set policy accordingly. He recommends much higher taxes on beer, wine, and liquor, for example, to discourage alcohol abuse, even while acknowledging that a uniform surcharge will overdeter responsible drinkers and underdeter "the dangerous minority." If, as he suggests in his discussion of illegal drug use, "harmless pleasure and relaxation count as benefits," the benefits forgone because of higher alcohol taxes could outweigh the harm prevented. Although I have less confidence than Kleiman does that we can calculate our way to the ideal drug policy, his insistence that the government consider the costs of its interventions is, as always, welcome.