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Distorted Incentives: The Failure of the War on Drugs and a New Way Forward

  1. Basoodler

    While President Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs" in 1971, federal drug enforcement policy has remained relatly unchanged since the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. In other words, our drug policy is about to celebrate its 100 year anniversary.

    But not too many people are celebrating. Certainly not Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance and a leader in the drug policy reform movement.

    In a provocative talk at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, MA, Nadelmann surveyed an array of alternative policy options, along a spectrum "from the most punitive to the most free market." So what do these options look like?!,!¡

    On one side you have what Nadelmann describes as "the Saudi Arabia/Singapore cut-off their heads, whip 'em, pull out their finger nails, drug test them with no cause, lock them up in prison camps" TK. On the other end -of the spectrum you have the free market policy with "almost no controls, almost no taxation...Milton Friedman's wet dream." Nadelmann points out that this was essentially the policy for cigarettes in the 1960s.

    So the question is how do we move along this spectrum and find the optimal drug control policy?

    According to Nadelmann, the optimal drug control policy seeks to do two things: reduce the harms associated with drug use (addiction, crime, etc). It also tries to reduce the negative consequences of government action in this area. To put this one neat sentence, as Nadelmann does in his talk, an optimal policy would be

    To reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the maximum extent consistent with protecting public safety and health.

    So what is preventing us from reaching consensus on this issue and formulating the optimum policy?

    Over the course of history our policy has never been guided by a rational analysis.

    Nadelmann asks: "Does anyone here actually think that some early version of the Institute of Medicine evaluated the relative risks of drugs 100 years ago" and then decided which ones should be legal and which ones should be illegal?

    As Nadelmann points out, our laws have nothing to do with actual risk, and everything to do with who uses which drugs, and who we perceive to use which drugs.

    For instance, who were the principal opiate users in the U.S. in the 1870s?

    "Middle aged white women by the millions took opium," Nadelmann points out. These women had nothing else available to deal with aches and pains. So why didn't people think to make a law to outlaw opium? "Nobody wanted to put grandma or auntie behind bars," Nadelmann says.

    However, when Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. and brought their tradition of smoking opium with them, that's when we see the first prohibition laws pop up in Nevada and California.

    These laws, like anti-cocaine and -marijuana laws, Nadelmann argues, were simply based on fear, not fact-based analysis.

    Risk Perception

    The War on Drugs, and the way it is enforced - which disproportionately affects young people and minorities - is the product of centuries-old biases, argues Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in today's lesson.

    The underlying idea, argues Nadelmann, is that many people assume that a scientific assessment must be at the heart of our public policy regarding which drugs are legal and which ones are illegal. And yet, there is a great discrepancy when we look at the risk factors of various drugs and their legal status today. Why are cigarettes and alcohol legal, despite the proven risks associated with those drugs, while other categories of drugs are illegal? The answer, Nadelmann says, is these laws are based on irrational fears about which groups of people use which substances, as opposed to a proper assessment of the risks each substance poses to individuals and society.


    The Nantucket project

    (Video link goes here : if I can get it to upload


  1. jakemoe
    Basoodler, thank you for sharing the information and the links. Great stuff. I am always trying to explain to people why I think drugs should be legal and this post will help me vocalize my reasons in an intelligent way.
  2. Crystal_Queen
    The new way forward is very important.
    We need some business engineers to create a viable structure.

    1) Drug Production
    2) Distribution
    3) Application/counseling/rehab/study/ statistics...
    4) Drug Digitization (a full on app that can generate any molecule)
    5) Research...separating the short acting, long acting, neurotoxin, psychosis inducing,
    6) Enforcement.... Tag pills with a HEX code.... matching the color... add 2 secret metabolites that would discourage sharing... or re-sale..
    7) internal affairs... regularly check for corruption....

    This would generate sooo many jobs... its ridiculous.
  3. thedude18
    If the gov. would legalize all drugs and allow private companies to synthesis, cook up, grow them and ve a government agency do a quality check on it all, sort of like a health inspector or the fda and usda, drug dealers would go away for the most part and drug related crime would decrease along with prices of the drugs. i would absolutley love to walk into a "drugstore" and buy a couple hits of acid for 10/20$. The revenue from it all would be phenominal.... we could use the taxes made from it for schools... oh the irony...
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