Nicholas Kristoff of the NYT has an Op-Ed Column up which questions the Drug War. When it comes to asking about the cost of incarceration and interdiction, I have no bloggable opinion. As my readers know, I don't really delve into policy issues on this front.
My main problem is when Kristoff trots out the usual dismissal of the public health costs of de-criminalization and, in particular, resorts to an argument which is so disconnected from any logical reality it is laughable. Or it would be, if I couldn't see otherwise intelligent people nodding along in agreement.
The stakes are huge, the uncertainties great, and there's a genuine risk that liberalizing drug laws might lead to an increase in use and in addiction. But the evidence suggests that such a risk is small. After all, cocaine was used at only one-fifth of current levels when it was legal in the United States before 1914.
1914? Is he kidding? Does he really think that the global manufacturing and supply chain for refined cocaine is the same as in 1914? Does he really think that the disposable income of the average American which is available for recreational drug purchase is the same? Does he think that the awareness of the citizenry about cocaine is the same?
So no, distant historical reference doesn't even remotely qualify as "evidence" to inform us on what the use of cocaine (or any other drug) would be were we to de-criminalize it right now.
And those states that have decriminalized marijuana possession have not seen surging consumption.
A little better. But still totally disingenuous. First of all, spot decriminalization for minor possession is a far cry from 50-state decriminalization or, more importantly, for the legalization that would be necessary to address many of the more costly problems outlined by the "Drug War has Failed" crowd. Let us not shift our goalposts around to benefit our argument, eh? De-criminalization of minor personal possession isn't going to do squat for international interdiction of major trafficking, busting of domestic production operations, dealing organizations, etc. To make that go away we are going to need something closer to broad scale legalization. Which is perfectly fine to discuss... but let's not pretend that the occasional state which fails to prosecute minor personal possession raps is "evidence" about what is going to happen after broader legalization.
There is a second problem with this argument which is that Kristoff mentions addiction. The fact of the matter is that policies on marijuana vary a lot by state...and even within state. Check here. Do you think Kristoff has done a close study of the before/after of each minor ordinance change and attempted to classify "use and addiction" following each change stretching back to the 1970s? Or do we think that he is taking advantage of this diversity and the broad trends I've discussed before to say "Hey, no clear changes"? Remember, we are only relatively recently coming to understand what addiction to cannabis looks like...it is not something that is readily apparent even to close acquaintances. It may take many years of use to develop to the point of being a highly significant clinical problem. As with all drugs of abuse only a minority of those exposed to cannabis will develop dependence and we have, as yet, only clues as to who those people are who will become dependent. The most reasonable interpretation of current knowledge is that dependence will go up with increased use- where "increased use" means both "more individuals" and "more cannabis per individual".
To sum up this impact on personal and public health is, to my mind, one of the most critical questions. Otherwise, generic civil liberty rationale should rule the day (me not being a moralizer when it comes to most things that don't interfere with anyone else's rights). It is also the question that the legalize-eet-mon perspective sidesteps, ignores and dismisses with trite, illogical and almost intentionally uninformed arguments, see Kristoff. Why? Because they know that if they are realistic about this stuff their argument will fail? That's no way to have an adult discussion.