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Category Archives: Drug policy

2009 U.S. Deaths by Cause:

By my math, I’ve already spent far too much time discussing the death penalty.  Feel free to call me a psychopath.

Next topic…


I’m generally sympathetic to the idea of ramping down the drug war in the west.  I grant that drug use is, for the most part, a victimless crime; that the drug war is very expensive; and that it empowers criminal organizations that do really bad things.  An end result of legalized, regulated, taxed drugs and weakened criminal organizations sounds good.  But I suspect it will be very hard to get there, and that carefree attempts to do so will backfire horribly.

Consider Connor Friedersdorf, framing costs of the drug war:

Would you rather legalize most drugs… or see the equivalent carnage of four 9/11s happen every year from fighting the black market? That isn’t a hypothetical. It’s a real choice…Would you rather legalize drugs…or risk that the sort of violence seen in Mexico will spread into the United States, corrupting our police departments, and ravaging our cities? Perhaps that won’t ever happen. But if you’re confident that it won’t happen I would like to know why.

I’m not confident that Mexican drug violence and corruption won’t spread to the United States.  It’s a real risk, and I favor policies designed to minimize it.  Having said that, I think the actors most likely to cause this spread are existing criminal organizations.  I think the best way to encourage existing criminal organizations to do so is to piss them off.  And I think the best way to piss them off is to cut off their revenue stream, by legalizing drugs.  I worry that Friedersdorf is advocating a policy that will result in the bad consequences he want to avoid.

What drug legalization advocates want to do, is to go back in time and stop the drug war before it started, thereby preventing criminal organizations from growing as strong as they have.  But given that these organizations do exist, it’s irresponsible to assume they’ll happily wither away when drugs are legalized.  The net effects of drug legalization in the West are highly dependent on how powerful criminal organizations respond, and I’ve seen little analysis trying to address this question.

I can vaguely imagine peaceful resolutions, wherein the illicit drug market shifts to a licit drug market; criminal organizations transition into lawful corporations; and corrupt governments transition into less corrupt governments.  (This process doesn’t seem tremendously different from the evolution of many American cities.)

I can also imagine terrible results, wherein powerful criminal organizations plot terrorist attacks designed to shift American public opinion back towards favoring drug criminalization.  How hard would it be for the Sinaloa cartel to orchestrate a drug-induced killing spree at the Mall of America?  How many times would this need to happen to “prove” that drug legalization is bad policy?

Drug legalization advocates have not begun to recognize the severity of this problem.

Mark Kleiman, who wrote a great book on crime-prevention policy, recently posted a set of initiatives on drug policy. His disclaimer, “Warning: Believing all of the stuff below will make people on both sides of the drug-war debate look at you funny”, suggests that he’s generally thinking outside the conventional framework, and more interested in finding solutions that in pushing a hard-line policy agenda. Most of his ideas make a fair bit of sense. And then there’s this one:

11. Make getting drunk (as opposed to drinking) the object of a big negative-advertising campaign. Goal: make being drunk, or having been drunk, something people—especially young people—try to hide, rather than something they brag about.

Is Kleiman unaware of the existing shame campaign that acts exactly opposite to the one he suggests? Consider:

  • You’re drinking at a party, and realize you’ve had enough, yet you still have a drink in your hand. Is it more shameful to a) leave the drink unfinished, or b) keep drinking, even though you’ve already had enough?
  • You’re at a bar, and realize you’ve had enough. A friend starts ordering shots. Is it more shameful to a) decline the shot, b) drink the shot, c) drink the shot and then order another round of shots?

My bet is that a significant percentage of 18-35 year-olds would answer (b) to the above questions. Given this, and given that teenagers generally look up to their older peers, what are the chances that an advertising campaign telling teenagers that being drunk is not cool will have any effect whatsoever?