Drug Policy Reform and Argumentative Positioning

There is a group of moderate drug policy reformers (and good friends of the Monthly) centered around the group blog The Reality-Based Community, including folks like Mark Kleiman and Keith Humphreys. As far as I can tell, their position is that current drug policy is terrible and destructive, but full legalization (as in how alcohol is treated) of illegal drugs would also be bad policy.

These guys have done a lot of great work—in particular, I highly recommend Kleiman’s book When Brute Force Fails, an excellent and surprising proposal to improve our atrocious criminal justice policies. But they have a rather foolish tendency to attack the “legalizer” community, efforts which are not only misguided, but self-defeating. The best comparison I can make is to the liberal moderates who spent far too much time attacking the far left in the run-up to the Iraq War:

Driving the ineffectual liberal response was the continuing near-pathological obsession with the far left, the sentiment that in a moment of national crisis the most important task facing liberalism was not to combat the errors of in-power conservatism but those of the hopelessly marginal left, who became the primary target of their rhetoric. In some cases, it seems reasonably clear that simple loathing of left-wing antiwar activists pushed liberal intellectuals into support of the Iraq War. But even many mainstream writers and pundits who would eventually reject the war contributed to the problem in the early postattack months, in effect firing in the wrong direction for so long that they wound up outnumbered and outgunned when they finally switched targets.

I should emphasize that this is a strategic comparison. I’m not comparing anyone to the morally odious 2002 liberal hawks, or making a substantive argument. (I would favor more liberal policies than the RBC gang, but their proposals would surely be a great improvement over the status quo.) The point is that the “legalizers,” which are few and powerless, aren’t just a pointless waste of ink and oxygen, they’re actually helping the RBC case by making them seem like the sensible moderates. Kleiman and company should welcome these folks as holding down the flank of the debate, and focus their attacks on Joe Arpiao and the DEA.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at the Week. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the Nation. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2012 to 2014.