Sunday, December 30, 2012

Drug policy

Drug prohibition has costs and benefits, and it raises questions of morality, causality, and alternative or complementary policies.


Drug warriors intend the drug war to reduce drug abuse and addiction by raising the effective price of producing, selling, and possessing certain drugs. While drug use in the U.S. has not been reduced as a result of the drug war, drug warriors imagine that without the drug war the social problems associated with drug abuse would be significantly worse. Conventional neoclassical economic analysis supports this conclusion because for almost all goods, the "law of demand" states that higher prices cause consumers to reduce consumption. Empirical data from Spain and the Netherlands call this simple analysis into question. Raising the price of a drug fails to address the ultimate causes of abuse and addiction. Prohibiting drugs use "sends a message" that drug use is unwise and not tolerated by society. Unfortunately, many other messages about drug use are also being sent and received, so that the legislative message may not persuade everyone.

It is clear what supporters of this policy wish it would accomplish, but less clear whether it does so. No person gains shelter from the danger that a loved one may fall victim to drug abuse through the mere existence of laws proscribing drug experimentation.


In addition to the direct cost of funding the personnel and equipment required to prosecute the war on drugs, a number of side effects result. The mission of the police force is distorted in several ways as a result of the drug laws. Drug law enforcement incurs an obvious cost in terms of the police employees hired, the capital equipment maintained, and the additional bureaucracy required to support these. Less obvious costs include the increased complexity of the police force's mission, the increased risk of corruption, and the reduction of trust between police officers and ordinary persons that results from enforcement of drug laws. The mass incarceration demanded by the drug war also has direct and indirect costs, in that taxpayers must finance the prisons and guards to confine drug prisoners, and society must sacrifice the economic contributions that prisoners would otherwise provide. Further, racial disparities regarding apprehension, prosecution, conviction and sentencing exacerbate existing racial tensions. Coercive paternalism distorts the mechanisms of society by allowing the majority to dictate to minorities.


Supporters of drug prohibition believe that drug abuse and addiction harms the drug user, the drug user's family, and the entire community. Drug use flouts the authority and legitimacy of the law and the law's makers. Drug use "desecrates the temple of the body".

Opponents sometimes take the position that virtuous actions that result from coercion do not confer any virtue on the actor. If the punishment should fit the crime, nonviolent lawbreakers should be punished nonviolently. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Alternatives and Causes

Drug prohibition does nothing to address the base causes of drug abuse and addiction. Other disadvantageous social phenomena, like marital infidelity, lying, alcoholism, divorce, etc. impact society negatively, but no one suggests starting a "war on cheating." Alcohol prohibition was tried, and declared a failure. While alcoholism is still a problem, other approaches have succeeded in some degree in changing attitudes toward drinking and ameliorating the problems associated with alcohol abuse.

The effectiveness of punishment depends on 3 variables: severity, speed, and certainty. The uncertainty and slow speed of drug law enforcement goes far toward explaining the relative failure of the drug war. Yet proponents of the drug war do not have any serious proposals for increasing the speed and certainty of their solution.

New York Times asked "Have we lost the war on drugs?"

Tolerance is not a value in itself

Occasionally I see someone preaching the virtue of tolerance without specifying what is to be tolerated. This is a lot like leaving "racial" out of the phrase "racial discrimination". "Racial discrimination" has managed to nudge other kinds of discrimination out of our minds, so that it is nearly the case that "discrimination"="racial discrimination" and we must find a new word to replace the old neutral meaning of the word used by itself. A complicating example occurs to me - "gender discrimination" - which might, in the right context, give its meaning to the word "discrimination" by itself. But this just emphasizes the other part of my point, which is that "discrimination" used to mean something like "differentiation" or "categorization", it used to lack its current negative connotation. So now, when a speaker wants to express the idea, for instance, that someone has recognized and taken action based on the relevant difference between two species of ant, it sounds odd or even incomprehensible to use the word "discrimination" or "discriminate", yet I can't think of a word that has come into common use to replace these.

Similarly, "tolerance", on its own, is no virtue. No one wants to tolerate murder, theft, rape, or arson. Racism is not tolerated and should not be. To make our meaning clear, we need to use "tolerance" in a phrase that specifies what is tolerated (such as "religious tolerance," "racial tolerance", or "ideological tolerance"), or perhaps better, just think in different terms entirely.

Does the idea of tolerance imply a yes/no evaluation, or is there more of a spectrum? Two values, tolerable or intolerable, or a range from "very tolerable" through "tolerable" to "not very tolerable" to "sort of intolerable" to "intolerable"?

The best use of "tolerance" I can think of is when someone does something unwise or mildly unethical, something of which I disapprove but not the sort of thing that makes me want to call the cops or run away or look for a big stick to defend myself with. So if someone does something stupid or rude, I may tolerate it without approving of it. In this sense, I would prefer to live in a society that tolerated drug addiction - I don't approve, but there is nothing I can do about it in a reasonable way. And I hope and expect that such a society would be better prepared to discover effective and nonaggressive means to help addicts cope with their problems.

I applaud writers' tendency to simplify ideas, and certainly language evolves as we use it. So I feel a bit embarrassed to bring this all up. But sometimes clarity and simplicity take opposing sides, and this time at least, I vote for clarity.

Utopia: Left, Right, and Otherwise

Rough draft.
Are political differences more about values or practicalities? I'm going to try to argue that our ideas about utopia (values) don't differ that much, that it is ideas about what will work that divide us politically. Maybe in the process I will talk myself out of this idea, or clarify what I really think.

In utopia, everyone contributes to society and gains from society, without regard to economic status, ethnicity, religion, gender, * etc. Children learn about the world**. Art, science, and commerce thrive appropriately, in a way that is not destructive or wasteful***. People get appropriate help when they make mistakes****. The question is, how can we achieve this?

The left believes that we can achieve this only by increasing taxes, regulations, legislation, and other forms of government control and subsidy. The government should fund art and science, control commerce, use rewards where possible and punishments where necessary to guide imperfect people toward the good. We will achieve this only after we eliminate income inequality and the role of hierarchy and greed in society. Democratically controlled government provides us the means to achieve our ends.

The right believes we must achieve these goals by going to church, teaching our children, by wrestling with these issues ourselves, each of us. Government at best serves as a last resort blunt instrument for dealing with situations where the other institutions of society have failed. They tolerate more income inequality and hierarchy, less lifestyle difference. For them, ironically, the state is less vital, but we owe it great obedience and respect.

How would a libertarian utopia differ from a right wing utopia? Right wing more eager to use the blunt instrument.

What is the next step toward utopia?

What are the most important issues? Low hanging fruit?

hot buttons:

* gay marriage
** school prayer, sex ed, evolution
*** environment
**** death penalty.

home runs:
cell phones
civil rights
women's movement
gay rights

strike outs:
wart on drugs
war on terror