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Can Both Sides of the Drug War Debate be Completely Wrong?

Drug policy academic Mark Kleiman is back with another simultaneous assault on both the drug czar and drug policy reform. I enjoyed Pete Guither’s response.

Mark Kleiman vs. "Drug Policy Reform"

Cato Unbound has posted two more essays in its online series debating the meaning of responsible drug use. True Temperance from Jacob Sullum is typical of his rational approach to the topic and pretty much said what I expected from him, concluding that it isn’t the government’s role to restrict personal choices that don’t infringe on the rights of others.

Mark Kleiman’s piece Drug Policy in Principle, And in Practice was more of a challenge for me. On one hand, Kleiman was effective in clearing up some of the false distinctions put forth by Jonathan Caulkins last week, and I generally appreciated his theme that current drug laws just don’t reflect the relative risk associated with some of the most popular drugs.

Unfortunately, Kleiman also gives us a taste of what we can typically expect from him in terms of defending prohibition as the best policy with regards to the most dangerous drugs and looking at ways to make the drug war work better, rather than aiming to reduce its enormous size. Pete Guither covers that point well, so I’ll focus my response on this specific statement from Kleiman:

Cato Unbound is to be commended for having assembled a symposium free both of the usual drug war rant and of the usual "drug policy reform" rant.

Rather than acting all offended by this, I’ll just assume (generously) that Kleiman is merely enjoying how focused this discussion has been. It’s true that Cato has provided an opportunity to explore some central themes of the drug policy debate that are not always given the attention they deserve. Kleiman’s quip might be slightly less annoying than Caulkins "dull drug legalization debate" remark earlier in this same discussion, but it still requires me to ask at what point the advocacy of reform becomes a problem for Kleiman. Which of our talking points is he so sick of?

I ask because I simply don’t see "drug policy reform" as a single idea that one either agrees or disagrees with. You don’t have to even consider regulation of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine in order to conclude that we’ve made terrible errors in our approach to them. What disappoints me so much about Kleiman is not just that he refuses to consider post-prohibition solutions, but that he also appears to regard that as our sole agenda and sidesteps many of our legitimate concerns about the way the drug war is being fought at this exact moment.

Kleiman’s entire essay manages to avoid acknowledging one single negative consequence of the modern war on drugs. His habitual reluctance to acknowledge the harms of our current policy combined with his stated objection to hearing us "rant" about those things amounts to an apparent effort to pretend they aren’t happening. I have a better impression of Kleiman than to think he’s naïve or callous about incidents like the Rachel Hoffman or Kathryn Johnston tragedies, but I hope he realizes that most self-described drug policy reformers spend more time thinking about things like that than about how "crack should be sold at the 7-11." Even if I knew we couldn’t change one drug law in this country, I would still be asking why so many dogs are killed in drug raids, why so many warrants are issued based on unreliable informant testimony, why new mothers are losing child custody based on false positive drug tests, why the drug czar opposes needle exchange, why students with petty drug convictions are denied financial aid for college, why police are never sanctioned for destroying property and even killing innocent in botched drug raids, why we spray herbicides from airplanes on poor farmers in foreign countries, and on and on.

In fairness to Kleiman, this particular Cato discussion wouldn’t necessarily have been the best context in which to explore all of the different ways that our current drug policy produces incalculable injustices. I realize that. My point is that I’m sick of hearing knowledgeable voices like Kleiman and Caulkins express disinterest in the drug policy reform debate while their own ideas continue to focus so much on the drugs and so rarely on the war. Until they are prepared to meaningfully discuss the "war" part of the drug war, they have no credibility to dismiss our ideas, for they have yet to even address many of our foremost concerns.

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