There are reminders every day about the impact our drug laws have on ourselves and our fellow citizens. Recently, many diaries have been written about the number and ranking of drug related questions on change.gov, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol prohibition, and perhaps the newest news regards the arrest of Sherry Johnston on possible drug charges in Alaska.
Sherry would be but a faceless statistic in the war on drugs, some nameless white woman from small-town America, were it not for her fortune (I'll let others judge whether 'tis good or bad) to be the paternal grandmother of one of the grandchildren of the 2008 Vice Presidential nominee of the Republican Party, Governor Palin.
Sherry doesn't deserve any more or less ridicule or attention or support or shame than anyone else engaged in the drug economy, but her blip in the limelight is an opportunity to examine how we talk about drugs. It's a reminder that drugs cross all political, ideological, religious, social, economic, racial, and gender boundaries.
One of the great advantages we have with drug policy is that much data has been collected about the consequences of our laws. We have copious amounts of medical literature and criminal justice statistics and surveys of the availability of drugs and so forth. Doctors and lawyers and judges and economists and business people and prosecutors and law enforcement officials and Greens and Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Christians and Jews and atheists and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and many, many, others have written books and articles on the impacts, both intended and unintended, of US drug policy. We have the benefit of great variation over time and among cultures to make comparisons to and draw evidentiary conclusions from, much more so than many other policy areas. Groups as diverse as the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, and theCATO Institute, and Common Sense for Drug Policy advise about the problems of our drug policies.
What I think is really important for us in the reality-based community to do is to make sure that our discussions about drugs are based upon facts, evidence, assertions that hold up to scrutiny. I think that's how we disagree on our conclusions without being disagreeable; we have to come to an agreement on the underlying facts.
I will not attempt to duplicate or summarize years (indeed, thousands of years) of what we know about drugs, or about specific US drug policy since passage of the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s. There are great resources available from all over the political spectrum. What I would ask and urge and cajole and plead, is that this be a forum where we challenge each other to make statements that are backed up by the evidence. I do believe the Obama-Biden Administration will embrace a more evidence-based approach to policy at Justice and with the ONDCP than the Bush-Cheney Administration, but I think the extent to which that happens depends partly on how we talk about drugs, on what our discourse looks and feels and sounds like. And I believe there's a spillover effect. If we want our charges about reality, about science, about evidence, about facts, to be heard in other policy areas, we are best suited to ensure we meet that standard in a policy area where we have significant disagreements within our own party.
The Drug Policy Alliance captures the essence of the problems we face with the war on drugs. As they aptly describe
The war on drugs has become a war on families, a war on public health and a war on our constitutional rights.
To give some structure to this general plea, I thought I'd list some foundational premises to discussing and evaluating policy and a few specific areas about drug policy that should be widely known. These are observations that should not be controversial, but that due to the intense dissemination of misleading, inaccurate, and incomplete information, oftentimes are controversial, even among well-meaning, well-educated citizens, when applied specifically to drug policy.
Some foundational aspects of key legislation:
- We should evaluate policies on both their intended consequences and their unintended consequences.
- The burden for proving that taxpayer dollars should or should not be spent lies on those saying taxpayers dollars should be spent, not on those saying they shouldn't be spent.
- We need to have clearly defined goals in order to evaluate success or failure of legislation.
- Empirical evidence is valuable in highlighting problematic areas. When the data points to overwhelming and enormous distortions in how a law is being applied or in significant differences between the US and other countries, that should be cause for more closely examining what we are doing.
- We should be hesitant to use government power to restrict private, consenting behavior.
- The rule of law requires that every person be subject to it.
A basic cheatsheet on the war on drugs:
- Many people have possessed, transported, sold, and/or manufactured illicit drugs. Do we really want to lock up tens of millions of people? Who's going to pay the taxes for all that? What other reasons might government offer down the road to lock up millions of people?
- Drug use and drug abuse are two separate policy issues. Addiction is a serious medical issue. Fortunately, most drug users are not abusers. Criminalization shifts the focus from treatment to punishment for the people that most need help, and it punishes casual users who pose no threat to themselves or society. This is important to understand even for 'hard' drugs, which is itself a somewhat loaded and misleading term. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, after all, are very, very dangerous drugs, and you can find them almost everywhere. Adverse reactions to prescription medications kill more Americans each year than all illicit drugs combined. We administer stimulant drugs as medication in a variety of forms, even to children. This is my one personal experience with hard drugs; I had quite the reaction to codeine as a kid.
- The drug war is very expensive, both in terms of money (at all levels of government) and in terms of distracting law enforcement efforts away from other threats to society. We have built a lot more prisons than universities in the past generation.
- The US imprisons more people than any other country in the world. Right now, approximately 6 million adults are under supervision (jail/prison, probation, or parole). We imprison more people for drug offenses than the whole of Europe's entire prison population. We have a higher incarceration rate than Russia and China. These people are disenfranchised (sometimes permanently), and they have a permanent barrier to future employment and other opportunities.
- Poor and minorities are disproportionately targeted, while wealthy and connected people get special treatment. Why are Rush Limbaugh and Brett Favre and Noelle Bush not in prison? We should listen to their pleas for privacy and understanding and mercy and apply the same reasoning to everybody else. But, if you're of the opinion that drugs should be criminalized, then that would mean punishment for our former, current, and future baby boomer Presidents, too. It means when a friend, family member, neighbor, or other person in our life makes such a choice, you should support their prosecution. It means you should report your college buddies and work colleagues who have broken drug laws.
- No amount of drug interdiction can repeal the laws of supply and demand. People's ingenuity at making and distributing something they want is far greater than government's ability to stop it. Surveys of high school students regularly show that drugs are widely available. We can't even keep drugs out of prisons.
- US drug policy funds organized crime and terrorism and violent warlords all over the globe. There is intense animosity generated toward the US due to tactics like Plan Colombia.
- Drug laws are new. Through much of our history, people were responsible for what they did to their bodies. It was only very recently that we tried mass efforts to eradicate the usage of entire drugs.
- Drug laws are haphazard. There is no scientific approach to how drugs are classified and regulated in the Controlled Substances Act. If you removed the names, it would be impossible to classify the major recreational drugs-nicotine/tobacco, THC/marijuana, alcohol, crack/cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, caffeine, mdma/ecstasy, and so forth. We literally tell 18 year olds you're not old enough to drink alcohol, but you're old enough to die for your country. We literally tell 12 year olds, don't do drugs, but report to the nurses' office every day at noon to take your cocaine (ie, Ritalin, methylphenidate).
- Drug laws laid the foundation for the excesses of the Bush Administration. The surveillance society, the use of prisons, the extra-Constitutional powers. All this and more was already laid in place by the tactics necessary to make people do stuff they don't want to do. Literally, people involved with abuses in US prisons were designing policies and training guards at places like Abu Ghraib. If you don't know the story of Lane McCotter, for example, it's not exactly pleasant, but well worth remembering. Mr. McCotter shackled a mentally ill inmate to a chair, naked, for 16 hours, killing the man.
I want to close by emphasizing that there are legitimate reasons to criminalize drugs. What I ask is that claims made supporting criminalization be clear and based upon the evidence. The goals should be specific and measurable and verifiable. There needs to be data showing that our laws have helped reach these goals.
It's not enough to say that drugs are bad. Drugs are bad. They are dangerous, and I personally would suggest drugs are not just physically unhealthy but are emotionally and spiritually and morally corrosive, as well. In an evidence-based world, though, if the effects of drug laws are even worse, then we should follow the data in our discourse and, ultimately, our public policy.
If you just read one thing, read the Drug Policy Alliance's summary of What's Wrong with the War on Drugs.