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Book Review: Drug War Heresies

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Drug War Heresies
by Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); 479 pages; $28.00.

In the ongoing debate over drug policy, professors Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter are betwixt and between. On the one hand, government officials have assailed their empirical data documenting prohibition’s negligible impact on both drug use and perceived harm because it undermines the feds’ allegation that tougher drug laws deter use. On the other hand, their reluctance to embrace the libertarian tenet of outright decriminalization or ally themselves with organizations that advocate drug liberalization has left them ripe for criticism from the reform community. Drug War Heresies will do little to please those on either side of the debate. Having diligently studied the American approach to drug policy and its real-world alternatives (primarily European and Australian models of harm reduction), MacCoun and Reuter have, not surprisingly, reached the conclusion that criminal drug prohibition causes greater overall harm than good. Among these harms, they note that those of greatest consequence — namely crime, morbidity, the creation of a black market, and a steady erosion of civil liberties — are primarily the result of drug prohibition rather than drug use. Nevertheless, MacCoun and Reuter are not advocates of legalization, nor do they appear particularly sympathetic to it. They maintain that the effects would be far too uncertain to predict with any reasonable amount of specificity and could result in a disproportionate number of negative ramifications. One of the authors’ primary reasons for rejecting legalization is a practical one. Both researchers clearly believe that legal reforms to prohibition are urgent and necessary, yet they note that legalization as a policy alternative is unrealistic because it enjoys virtually no public or political support. In a fascinating section of the book entitled “Why Have Legalizers Had So Little Impact?” they conclude that despite an increase in public discussion in the 1980s and 1990s regarding legalization’s merits,

there is little indication that the legalization movement is gaining popular support and considerable evidence that it is falling largely on deaf ears…. At present, it is safe to say that Americans are quite unpersuaded by the legalization position.

MacCoun and Reuter offer speculation as to why this is the case, paying greatest attention to the likelihood that arguments in favor of legalization are fundamentally more complex than the rigid “black versus white” rhetoric of the prohibitionists. For example, they write, philosophical bases for legalization — such as a comprehension of the so-called unintended consequences of drug prohibition (e.g., the apparent role of prohibition in promoting income-generating crime, overburdening the criminal justice system, and diverting law-enforcement resources away from other more serious crimes) — are inherently more complex than those for prohibition. In addition, legalizers are arguing against the status quo, thereby requiring them to rely on “more complex arguments because their task of persuasion is more difficult.”

Finally, MacCoun and Reuter note that legalization “requires tradeoffs among competing values, tradeoffs that many citizens find unpalatable if not completely unacceptable.” (Of course, drug prohibition requires citizens to accept a myriad of tradeoffs as well, primarily higher taxes and fewer civil liberties, though this fact is rarely emphasized in public debate.) Legalization’s most unacceptable tradeoff, they write, is the threat of increased drug use due to lower prices, wider availability, and the decreased fear of legal sanctions. Clearly, it’s the first two factors that give the authors most reason for concern:

Unless strict regulations are adopted, a legalization regime might well lead to the kind of aggressive marketing of psychoactive drugs used now for tobacco and alcohol. In that sense, drug legalization might indeed open the floodgates.

MacCoun and Reuter base their assertion on data from the Netherlands showing a steep increase in marijuana use in the mid 1980s and 1990s following a rise in the commercial marketing of and public access to cannabis. The authors fear that a similar increase in overall drug use could occur in the United States were such a system to be implemented here.

The Netherlands example — one of the few we have available to examine, as virtually no nations have modern experiences with the legalization of drugs other than alcohol or tobacco — both raises questions and provides answers. As the authors wisely note, the Dutch first effectively removed criminal sanctions on the use of cannabis in 1976 — a move that was not followed by a marked increase in use for some 10 years. (Studies regarding the impact of marijuana decriminalization — a policy whereby cannabis users face an administrative fine in lieu of a criminal arrest for possessing personal-use quantities of pot — in Australia as well as several U.S. states have also indicated that the removal of criminal sanctions on possession does not causally lead to an increase in use.)

These facts would appear to indicate that decriminalization alone has little impact on use but that the allowance of public establishments where marijuana may be commercially marketed and sold (the so-called “coffee-shop” phenomenon which exploded in Holland in the mid 1980s and remains unique to the Dutch) does increase use. The notable problem with this theory, however, is that the use of (primarily) marijuana and other illicit substances rose sharply in most other Western nations — many of which, like the United States, had recently toughened their anti-drug laws — during this same time period, indicating that the prevalence of drug use waxes and wanes regardless of drug availability or existent (or nonexistent) drug penalties.

Among studies of current drug users, few cite fear of getting caught as a deterrent, as virtually none believe they will actually be arrested by law enforcement. Among studies of former users, most cite health concerns and family obligations as their primary reasons for quitting. Specific to cannabis, among those who have never experimented with it, most cite “not thinking they would like it,” as their chief reason for abstaining; few answer, “because it’s illegal,” and even fewer answer, “because it’s difficult to get ahold of.” In fact, more than 85 percent of U.S. teens have consistently responded to government surveys that marijuana is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain despite prohibition. These latter facts would seem to argue in favor of legalization.

Nevertheless, MacCoun and Reuter — who are no doubt aware of much of this evidence — appear to take a more “middle of the road” position in favor of “depenalization,” whereby nonviolent drug users would no longer face long jail terms. I say “appear” because, despite Drug War Heresies’s 450-plus pages, MacCoun and Reuter avoid endorsing any substantive, sweeping drug-law policy changes. They acknowledge and, at times, praise various European reforms of harm-reduction, such as needle-exchange, safe-use campaigns targeted at addicts, and the expansion of methadone-maintenance programs, but they nevertheless conclude, “Increased treatment and prevention, even under the most generous scenarios, will not solve the U.S. drug problem.”

They criticize current U.S. strategies: “Society is forgoing significant reductions in drug-related damage by its unwillingness to make policy changes that risk sending the wrong message,” they lament, but then turn around and reject legalization or any alternative drug liberalization policies that would significantly dismantle prohibition. Then, with seemingly few alternatives remaining, they appear to throw up their hands in frustration, declaring, “It is doubtful that a complete ‘solution’ exists.” Though candid, it’s a bittersweet conclusion that will no doubt do little to change MacCoun and Reuter’s reputations as fence-sitters in the global drug-policy debate.

This article originally appeared in the April 2004 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.