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Book Review: Drug War Heresies

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[Editor's Note: Somebody thinks this book is dangerously subversive. This reviewer's copy of "Drug War Heresies" was confiscated by Canadian customs agents during an attempted border crossing on June 21. No reason was given. -- Philip Smith]

Professors of public policy Robert MacCoun (UC Berkeley) and Peter Reuter (University of Maryland) have written what promises to be the textbook on drug policy for the next generation of university undergraduate and graduate students. In doing so, they have caused howls of protest to rise from some quarters of the drug reform movement, primarily because the authors seek to find a workable middle ground for drug reform somewhere between prohibition and outright legalization. But those rising to critique MacCoun and Reuter would be well-served if they took the time to read and confront 'Drug War Heresies' for what it is instead of what it is not.

MacCoun and Reuter are undeniably sympathetic to reform of US drug laws, but theirs is no libertarian manifesto, and it seems a waste of time to criticize them for not penning one. What their work makes clear is that they are mainstream academics studying a public policy problem from a reasonably progressive perspective. As such, they can be maddening for activists: Every conclusion is tentative, every policy prescription heavily qualified -- as is entirely appropriate in a work of serious scholarship. And that is what 'Drug War Heresies' is. MacCoun and Reuter have spent the past decade studying not only American drug policy, but also, as their subtitle puts it, "other vices, times, and places." As a result, they bring an illuminating comparative perspective to the contemporary US drug policy discussion, measuring current drug policy against, for instance, Alcohol Prohibition, the American experience with gambling and prostitution, the contemporary Dutch experience with marijuana, and the ongoing Italian experiments with the decriminalization of heroin possession.

What they find may be particularly disturbing for libertarians. Among other things, Reuter and MacCoun chart the increase in teenage marijuana use in Holland and the post-Prohibition increase in alcohol consumption. Through thorough number-crunching they show that those increases are unarguable, but that they are not directly attributable to softening prohibitionist policies. Instead, write the authors, in both cases the increase in usage levels was tied to the commercialization of the drug. In the US context of unalloyed fealty to the free market, intense marketing of newly legalized, decriminalized, or depenalized drugs is undesirable yet unavoidable, they suggest, citing recent experience with efforts to control tobacco and alcohol advertising. Commercialization resulting in higher usage levels makes drug legalization a harder sell in a society where the only measure of "success" in the drug war is decreased usage levels. Libertarian advocates of drug legalization will have to confront the ugly political reality that their strict embrace of the market will make achieving legalization all the more difficult because opponents will be able to argue that unrestrained market forces will push drug consumption up as they have pushed up tobacco and alcohol consumption.

[Editor's Note: The author's predictions and conclusions in this area are certainly important to consider but are by no means as inevitable or formidable as they suggest. It is not at all clear that society would ever tolerate outright commercialization of hard drugs or hard forms of drugs, or that commercial promotion of them would work if it did -- drugs like heroin and cocaine and pretty scary to most people and hence have their own built-in disincentives to use, disincentives that won't go away regardless of the legal or commercialsystems. And commercialization of marijuana may actually be a good thing, if it competes with and hence reduces use of alcohol or other drugs. -- David Borden.]

It is these sorts of observations that make 'Drug War Heresies' so potentially useful for drug reformers. While the authors make clear they believe that prohibition causes more harm than drug use itself and admit that drug reformers hold the intellectual high ground, they pull no punches in estimating the difficulty of transforming a winning argument into a change of policy. Reuter and MacCoun trace three "battlefields" where the drug policy fight will be one or lost. The first is the philosophical: Does the state have sufficient justification to infringe on the liberty of its citizens to control drug use? No, say the authors, here is where the drug reformers are ascendant. The second battlefield is analytical: Do current policies achieve their stated aims of reducing drug consumption? Here the terrain is more contested, say Reuter and MacCoun, and this is largely the ground they plow in "Drug War Heresies." But the third battlefield is the toughest of all, the battlefield of politics: Can drug reformers win the battle for the hearts and minds of US voters and politicians?

MacCoun and Reuter are not so sure, and it is perhaps here that they can be accused of misplaced pessimism. Apparently writing before the most recent round of state-level drug reform initiative victories, they fail to sense the hollow fragility of the prohibitionist drug war consensus as demonstrated by drug reform victories on nearly every occasion that such issues are put directly before the voters.

And while MacCoun and Reuter make clear that they believe the US has too many people in prison for drug crimes, there is something curiously bloodless about their argument. They list some of the harms resulting from imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Americans -- lost wages and productivity, huge prison budgets -- but fail to grasp or address the soul-searing human suffering among drug war prisoners, their friends, spouses, parents and children. A half-million drug war prisoners, a million fatherless or motherless (or both) children, a rural white population increasingly dependent on the brutalizing labor of keeping other human beings in cages, the corrosive effects of the "snitch state" on such basic things as interpersonal trust -- such things are difficult to quantify, no doubt, but are ignored at our peril. Reuter and MacCoun do manage to note that drug use offers certain pleasures to drug users -- something that is equally difficult to quantify -- and it is a shame they cannot at least acknowledge the human horror of the drug war prison complex.

These failings, however, should not detract from the importance of 'Drug War Heresies.' MacCoun and Reuter have explored many of the myriad issues surrounding drug policy in discussions that are consistently provocative (and fascinating for policy wonks), if sometimes infuriatingly qualified. But they have written an academic study, not a polemic, and they deserve to be judged on their own terms. As a work of scholarly research, 'Drug War Heresies' succeeds wonderfully, and serious drug reformers can only help themselves and their cause by reading and confronting the arguments in this book. The next generation of drug policy scholars is certain to be doing so.

'Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places,' is published by Cambridge University Press. Visit www.amazon.comto purchase a copy online.