Dispassionate voice of reform


Staff member
The war on drugs, like the war on terror, is proving a dear and dreary struggle against faceless enemies on shifting terrain. The latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), published on June 23, gives little reason to think it is being won.

In America, where cannabis consumption had been falling, the UNODC thinks it is staging a comeback, along with ecstasy. In Western Europe use of cannabis is stable, but it has increased in Eastern Europe and Latin America. In Asia synthetic stimulants are on the rise.

More illegal substances are produced in the country in which they are consumed, whether cannabis in London or ecstasy and crystal meth in Indonesia. Fast-changing designer drugs are marketed before regulators have figured out whether to outlaw them, and the line between using drugs to combat medical conditions and taking them simply to improve performance — in exams or sports — is increasingly blurred. Against a backdrop of violence in producer countries such as Mexico and Colombia, and incarceration in consumer countries, including America and Britain, the argument over what to do is escalating.

So there has rarely been greater need for a cool, dispassionate voice to sift through the facts. Indeed, three such voices speak in this book. Mark Kleiman teaches Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles; he has written influentially about drug policy for a couple of decades. Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken, occasional co-authors, teach at Carnegie Mellon and Pepperdine universities respectively.

Dedicated to the families and friends of substance abusers and the professionals who work with them, Drugs and Drug Policy is a practical book which aims to debunk myths. It is where you go to look up how to compare the pharmacological risk inherent in different substances (there is a table), whether such a thing as an "addictive personality" exists that can predict susceptibility to drugs (not as such) or the consequences of legalising drugs in countries that are said to have done so (none really has, despite loose talk about Portugal and the Netherlands).

The authors are at their most interesting when they breeze with that assumption of airy neutrality through what are in fact politically charged questions about policy. In 2009 Kleiman wrote the best book in years on penal reform, another subject with a strong whiff of the culture wars.

In When Brute Force Fails, he argued that continuing to lock up offenders en masse was neither affordable nor desirable; what was needed was a smarter approach to enforcement, with strategically chosen targets and swifter, shorter, surer sentences to influence individual conduct.

The authors show the same instincts this time, looking at strategies for putting away dealers (focus on the violent ones), treating addiction (save your money for addicts who really can't go straight on their own) and so forth. Two successful "coerced abstinence" programmes come in for particular praise. Hope, a programme in Hawaii, tells offenders on probation who are involved with drugs to ditch the habit, against the certainty of a prompt, short but escalating jail sentence if they fail the frequent drug tests. Drug use has plummeted: One year into the programme, 80 per cent of the probationers have been drug-free for three months or more. Another scheme, Sobriety 24/7, takes the same brusque approach with repeat drunk-drivers in South Dakota, testing them twice a day to see if they have had a drink. More than two thirds of the group never "blow hot".

Kleiman's views on the question of the day — whether drugs should be legalised — are nuanced. He appreciates that legalising drugs could reduce the violence surrounding the trade and the degradation of abusers but values the role he thinks prohibition plays in limiting consumption. This paper has advocated legalisation but never claimed it was trouble-free. There is plenty of common ground with this thoughtful book.

Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know
By Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken,
Oxford University Press,
256 pages