Vice Squad
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Foreign Policy Gets Letters

The September/October issue of Foreign Policy featured a cover story by Ethan Nadelmann calling for a look at drug legalization. (There's video updates featuring a debate between Nadelmann and a leading prohibitionist here.) The November/December issue contains three letters responding to Nadelmann, and Nadelmann's response to the responses (only the beginning of the first letter is available to non-subscribers here.) One letter, by renowned drug policy researchers Rob MacCoun and Peter Reuter, notes that legalization will likely decrease harms per use, but possibly could increase drug use so much that total harm will go up -- and Nadelmann accepts their point, claiming that he just wants to start a debate about legalization, not to promote it as "the answer" to drug problems. I also accept their point, but the minimization of "total harm" cannot be the overall goal in drug regulation any more than it can be in automobile regulation or soccer regulation. Admittedly, based on where we are now, I think that most liberalizations consistent with a robust policy regime would reduce total harm -- but if we started with decent policies, as we have, say, with auto regulation, then further moves to decrease harms (think of reducing speed limits to 5 mph) would not be sensible.

[Meanwhile, perhaps to make amends for providing a forum for Nadelmann's dangerous ideas, Foreign Policy this month also presents some data and analysis about methamphetamine. I find the two-page spread to be slightly alarmist. Meth is characterized as "the world's fastest-growing illegal drug" -- the type of locution that always makes me want to ask what time period we are talking about. Fastest growing over the last day? month? year? I thought khat use in Canada was rising pretty quickly. Then there's a bunch of overly precise data on meth prices and supplies, with no discussion of the quality of the data.]

Meanwhile, Radley points us to a post by Belle Waring arguing for decriminalization of all drugs, including heroin. I think that it should be noted that a legal regime could still be quite restrictive, involving things like advance purchase requirements and buyer licensing. Also, drug tastes seem to be such that in the absence of prohibition there would be a substitution to milder (though still dangerous, of course) opiates (such as opium itself) instead of heroin -- the opposite shift occurred with prohibition -- and regulations could encourage this substitution. So I believe that a sensible legalization, which should start with rather strict regulations, would lower total harms relative to our current predicament -- not that lowering total harms is the overall goal!

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