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Kicking the Habit

SINCE RICHARD NIXON launched the war on drugs five decades ago, it has ground on in the face of a mounting pile of evidence that many drug policies cause more harm than good at home and abroad. In this deceptively simple book, Mark A.R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken eviscerate many of the arguments behind the policies that have been the leading weapons in the war on drugs. But they also cast a skeptical eye on some shibboleths of the burgeoning drug reform movement. Sometimes snarky but seldom condescending, the authors’ penetrating and nuanced critique of the growing calls for legalization is one of the highlights of the book.

Calls for legalization or decriminalization might sound good on a bumper sticker or a T-shirt, but they obfuscate a messier political and policy reality. Ending the war on drugs is not simply a matter of bringing the troops home. It will entail some unsettling policy and political tradeoffs. We will have to accept certain policies and law enforcement strategies that foster considerably less harm, but at the cost of giving a wink and a nod to certain illegal behavior. Fans of the The Wire who recall police commander Bunny Colvin’s aborted experiment with “Hamsterdam” will recognize the dilemma.

Despite tens of billions of dollars spent on interdicting drugs from abroad, the supply of drugs has remained steady. The plummeting street price of many illegal drugs over the last few decades is compelling evidence that interdiction has not done much to stem supply. Drug overdoses have increased almost six-fold in the last thirty years. They are now the leading cause of accidental death in the United Sates, having surpassed motor vehicle accidents for the first time in 2011.

The authors (Kleiman is a professor of public policy at UCLA. Caulkins and Hawken teach at Carnegie Mellon and Pepperdine universities respectively) contend that advocates of decriminalization and legalization have drawn the wrong lessons from the experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s. For all the talk of legalization, the fact is that no country in the world “has free legal commerce in cannabis, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.” Even a drug reform maverick like Portugal has not come close to legalizing drugs. Portugal regulates drugs today much like how alcohol was regulated during Prohibition in the United States. Since 2001, possession of any drugs for personal use has not been a crime in Portugal but selling drugs can still land you in prison.

Portugal’s experiment with across-the-board decriminalization and Holland’s more limited experience with decriminalizing cannabis—sort of—through sales for personal use at its “coffee houses” have much to recommend them. But one has to be clear-eyed that decriminalization rests on accepting an uncomfortable legal inconsistency. “As the Dutch say, the front door of the coffee shops—where the customers enter—is (almost) legal, but the back door—where the product comes in—is entirely illegal,” Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken note. As a consequence, coffee-shop cannabis costs about what illicit cannabis costs elsewhere in Europe and the United States and is not aggressively marketed. This has probably helped to contain cannabis consumption and abuse. 

If the United States were to widely legalize or decriminalize drugs, consumption of and dependence on drugs would likely increase—at least for a time—while the price and social stigma would decrease. Advocates of legalization argue that tight regulation of drugs through government monopolies, perhaps modeled after the state liquor stores, and high taxes on drugs would offset some of this increase.

That was the hope when the manufacture and sale of alcohol became legal with the end of Prohibition. But the alcohol example is a sobering one. Taxes on alcohol have plummeted in the decades since Prohibition ended in the 1930s and now are much lower than in most European countries. State liquor stores lost out to private ones as a powerful and well-connected liquor industry asserted itself. Well-heeled advertising campaigns helped make alcohol the country’s most popular drug and its most widely abused one.

The authors dismiss claims that shifting resources from law enforcement to prevention programs would stem the expected increase in drug consumption and abuse that would come with legalization or decriminalization. Prevention sounds nice in theory, but the reality is that even the top school-based prevention programs have only a limited impact on substance abuse. These programs are not able to tackle the proven risk factors for substance abuse—a single-parent family, a parent or sibling who is a substance abuser, and socializing with peers who use drugs.

As for the projected fiscal benefits of legalization or de-criminalization, they have been vastly overstated. The war on drugs has not been the primary engine of the country’s unprecedented prison growth. Ending the war on drugs will not significantly reduce the country’s extraordinary incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world. Legalizing marijuana could provide a tax windfall for some cash-strapped states, but perhaps at the cost of empowering a powerful commercial marijuana industry bent on increasing consumption through Madison Avenue-style marketing campaigns. One alternative is to permit users to grow their own marijuana and to form small consumer-oriented co-ops. But that likely means sacrificing those projected billions in marijuana tax revenues.

Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken challenge the conventional wisdom on other fronts. In their view, drug courts are no panacea for the drug problem, despite all the recent hype about them. As for treatment, most people with a substance abuse problem recover fairly rapidly—actually over a period of months or years, not decades—and without intensive professional intervention. Small doses of warning and encouragement from relatives, friends, and family doctors can go a long way toward helping to bring a drug or alcohol habit under control.

Wading into the messy policy swamp that lies beyond slogans for decriminalization or legalization, Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken make a number of sensible policy recommendations for winding down the war on drugs. These include targeting formal treatment to those in greatest need of it, expanding opiate substitution for treating heroin dependence, promoting early intervention by health-care providers, and encouraging more substance abusers to try quitting on their own before seeking formal treatment.

With respect to law enforcement, they call for ending the unrealistic expectation that the police can eliminate established drug markets. Instead, the police should focus on those dealers and styles of dealing that tend to generate the most violence, disorder, and other collateral damage. This means targeting flagrant selling in open-air markets while giving a nod and a wink—or at most a rap on the wrists—to less harmful modes of drug dealing, such as the “pizza delivery” model.

Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken also call for drastically reducing the use of incarceration for run-of-the mill dealers and for ending bans on public housing, student loans, and other government benefits for people with prior drug convictions. Their blind enthusiasm for the HOPE program in Hawaii, which subjects substance abusers on probation to frequent drug tests and quickly dispatches them to short stints in jail for repeat violations, seems out of keeping with their broader call to drastically scale back the role of law enforcement in drug policy.

Throughout the book, the authors rightfully draw our attention back to the enormous harm done by two legal drugs—cigarettes and alcohol. They make a persuasive case that alcohol is our most harmful drug, for individuals and for society. Their policy recommendations include substantially increasing alcohol and cigarette taxes so as to reduce consumption and abuse and imposing tighter restrictions on the sale of liquor to people convicted of alcohol-related crimes.

The desirable policy shifts to end the war on drugs abroad are less fraught with the political and legal ambiguities that rolling back the war at home will entail. Simply put, the United States needs to cut back drastically its emphasis on controlling the supply of drugs from drug-producer nations. The illegal drug distribution system “is not a centrally controlled hierarchy vulnerable to disruption by decapitation.” Eliminating the supply of an extremely lucrative product that can be readily produced with sophisticated technology is next to impossible. With the possible exception of the elimination of the “French connection,” which stalled the 1970s heroin epidemic, catching drug kingpins and disrupting international supply chains of illegal drugs rarely affect their availability. 

Enforcement efforts in places like Mexico and Afghanistan have only minimal impact on the price and the consumption of illegal drugs in the United States. But these policies have had brutal consequences in drug-producing countries. They fuel violence and corruption and enrich armed groups, including drug cartels and terrorist organizations. Policies that seek to eradicate crops of opium poppies and coca plants also have failed to stem the supply of illegal drugs. So have agricultural and other economic development programs intended to get drug producers to switch to other livelihoods.  

“The problems of drug-consumer nations cannot be solved in drug-producer nations,” say Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that appears lost on the Obama administration. For all its talk about the need to focus on the demand side of the drug problem and on prevention and treatment, federal funding for waging the war on drugs overseas has held steady under President Obama. Recently this war took yet another ominous turn with reports last summer that the CIA is planning to deploy mercenaries to battle drug cartels in Mexico.

Having created over the past half-century a vast, powerful, and highly militarized law enforcement apparatus to wage the war on drugs at home and abroad, the United States is still not ready to kick the habit. Breaking this addiction will likely require professional intervention. A strong political movement is needed to convince American politicians and other public officials that our drug policies have hit rock bottom, and that the time is long overdue to demonstrate some political courage.

Marie Gottschalk is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of, among other works, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America. She is completing a new book on the future of penal reform.