Coincidence

This morning, I got an email from a friend who isn’t involved in the War About Drugs but knows a great deal both about drug abuse and about my views on the topic. Like me, he is neither a hard-core warrior nor a flat-out legalizer. He had just received a fund-raising pitch for the Drug Policy Alliance, signed by George Soros. (I should note that Soros is one of my heroes; I can’t think of an individual in our lifetimes whose philanthropy – especially in the former Soviet Bloc – has created more value for the world.)

My friend wrote, “It looks good. Is it?”

I wrote back “In a word, no. DPA is the main drug-legalization group. They’re not very forthcoming about their actual aims.”

Of course, that’s the point; DPA sounds much more reasonable on paper than it is in practice. You might not guess that its announced goal of “drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights” means in practice opposition to any effective form of drug abuse control.

Then, when I got to work, I found in my mail a slick (in both senses) report on drug courts from DPA. It’s unsigned, which I would say reflected prudence on the part of the author or authors; it is not the sort of document anyone with any scholarly self-respect would want his name attached to.

Now, I’m not a fan of drug courts as they currently exist – they enroll too many low-level offenders without severe drug problems who would have done better with a good leaving-alone – so many of the report’s criticisms of drug courts seem on target to me. But the level of sleaze in the argumentation is truly breathtaking.

One of the subheads of the report reads: ”Finding: Incarceration Sanctions Do Not Improve Outcomes.” But the curious reader (no doubt a minority) will search the text in vain for the evidence supporting that very strong claim. Instead, one finds a broad-brush critique of the body of research that finds sanctions are in fact useful, based in part on the fact that the studies don’t distinguish between jail time and other forms of sanctioning. But in fact no actual study shows that “Incarceration Sanctions Do Not Improve Outcomes.” The authors simply hope that you will accept their assertion of the absence of evidence as being evidence of the absence of benefits.

It’s not as if the evidence were hard to find. With impeccable taste, the report cites the Congressional testimony of Angela Hawken criticizing the “evidence-based practice” movement for insufficient attention to the quality of the evidence.

But that testimony isn’t mostly about the problems with evidence-based practice (such as evaluations by program sponsors). It’s mostly about Hawken’s own work on HOPE, a primarily sanctions-oriented program for reducing drug use, crime, and incarceration among drug-involved offenders, which was subjected to a very careful study including a randomized controlled trial:

The results of the randomized controlled trial (RCT) … were large reductions in missed appointments, positive drug tests, recidivism, revocation and incarceration days.

The accompanying table gives numerical values for the “large reductions”: a third as many positive drug tests – despite the fact that the experimental group faced random testing rather than the easier-to-beat scheduled testing – and half as many no-shows, new arrests, revocations, and incarceration days. That’s a far more impressive set of outcomes than any treatment-oriented program can show. And yet, because the HOPE results don’t fit the DPA’s agenda, the report simply ignores them; the program is never mentioned.

The DPA’s basic claim is that the purposes of the criminal justice system are so inconsistent with the goal of improving the welfare of offenders that it is impossible to “provide health-oriented treatment within a punitive structure.” This would surprise the hell out of George Vaillant, whose classic Natural History of Alcoholism found a substantial number of alcoholics whose only periods of sustained sobriety outside prison walls was achieved while they were on parole.

If it were true, as the report asserts, that punishment is effective in changing behavior only when the subject is perfectly rational, then it would follow that people in the grip of addiction would not respond to punishment. But while it’s possible to do a rational-actor model of deterrence (as Gary Becker famously did) in fact the extinction of behavior by aversive consequences can be demonstrated in imperfectly rational organisms ranging from flatworms to sophomores. In any case, the HOPE results are what they are, and no amount of theorizing can make them go away.

The report is rich in fallacy and evasion: for example, it elides the category “people arrested in this instance for drug possession” to the category “people whose only offense is using drugs.” When someone with a history of burglary is arrested for crack possession, that person’s health – while undeniably important – is not the only value in play when deciding how to deal with him; the victims of the burglaries he is likely to continue to commit if he doesn’t stop using expensive drugs also have an interest in the outcome.

The report praises California’s treatment-oriented, largely sanction-free Proposition 36 for reducing the number of people incarcerated for drug possession, but never mentions the finding (again, by Hawken and her colleagues) that the avoided incarceration for possession was fully made up for by increased incarceration for property and violent crimes among Prop 36 beneficiaries.

Drug warriors and anti-prohibitionists share an ethic of controversy that judges facts and scientific findings by the support they provide for pre-chosen policy conclusions, rather than basing conclusions on even-handedly gathered evidence. Those of us looking for better outcomes from drug policy have learned that the truth does not lie at some “golden mean” between those extremes, but largely at right angles to their polarity.

Footnote Naturally, these columns are open to whatever response the DPA would like to offer. I promise not to edit or censor anything the group chooses to submit, though I might be moved to offer some additional comments of my own.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

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