Global Commission on Drug Policy: Ho, Hum

The grandiloquently-named Global Commission on Drug Policy has issued its final press release report. Not a new idea to be found; just recycled legalization talking points. Not surprising, with a commission long on celebrity but short on relevant expertise and a staff of “advisers” drawn entirely from within the “drug policy reform” cocoon.

I wouldn’t mention it, except an academic colleague asked me at lunch Friday about the “new United Nations report about the failure of the war on drugs,” and a Canadian network called and asked me to join in a debate on the report (invitation withdrawn after they asked me whether I was for or against decriminalization and I answered simply “No”). So it looks as if the decision to put resources into press relations rather than analysis has paid off.

For the curious, here’s a short list of what’s wrong about, or missing from, the document.

* The report never acknowledges any tradeoff between drug control measures and drug abuse, simply reciting the obvious fact that current measures have left a substantial drug abuse problem as if that proved that eliminating the measures would not change the size of the problem.

* The report does not deal with the problems created by alcohol and tobacco: between them, a rather poor advertisement for the “public health” benefits of non-prohibitory policies.

*The claimed results from Portugal are not nearly as clear as Glenn Greenwald pretends they are.

* Even assuming Portugal’s decriminalization of use was a success, there is no reason to think that the results of full legalization of commerce would in any way resemble those of decriminalization of use.

* Eliminating cannabis prohibition – which I favor – would have only very modest benefits in terms of reducing drug-dealing violence and drug-related incarceration. Of the roughly half a million people behind bars on drug charges in the United States, about 30,000 – one in fifteen – is there for a cannabis offense.

* Desistance mandates under probation grossly outperform any existing drug treatment regimen: in Hawaii, 80% of a group of long-term methamphetamine users was on the street and not using after a year on HOPE; compared to randomly selected controls, their rates of arrest for new crimes and of incarceration were reduced by more than 50%. That falsifies the claim that “trying to manage this complex condition through punishment is ineffective.”

* David Kennedy’s Drug Market Intervention strategy has demonstrated the capacity of harm-reduction law enforcement; the goal is to force illicit market transactions into less harmful forms. Why ignore such a proven, practical strategy?

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.