Jonathan Caulkins vs. The Boring Drug War Debate

Posted in:
Yesterday I noted Cato Unbound’s online discussion series surrounding the terrific article Towards a Culture of Responsible Psychoactive Drug Use. Cato has now published the first in a series of responses, entitled Is Responsible Drug Use Possible? by Jonathan Caulkins. I had a hard time with it.

As noted by Pete Guither at DrugWarRant, the whole thing begins with a cavalier dismissal of what Caulkins calls the "by-now dull legalization debate," which just made me cringe. It’s not just that I support legalization, or even that I would still willingly debate it if I didn’t. Rather, I’m just amazed that Caulkins has shown up today to write about drug policy on the Cato website if he finds the drug policy debate boring.

Think about how silly that is. The whole point of this online discussion is to bring together experts to share differing views on drug use and the policies surrounding it. Is Caulkins going to get bored when he reads Jacob Sullum’s upcoming contribution to this same discussion? Will he excuse himself from subsequent dialogue when the conversation inevitably turns towards the efficacy of prohibition itself? I assume not, but his word choices beg these questions and it truly escapes me why he would feign disinterest in the exact debate he just voluntarily entered into.

This aversion to the drug war debate is at least partially explained in his concluding paragraph, which adopts the classic copout that drug policy reform isn’t going to happen, so we can only evaluate our options within the confines of the current policy:

American voters appear to have decided that even though responsible drug use is possible ex post, society is better off if the ex ante gamble is prohibited. Given that reality, is it responsible to willfully flout laws that are constitutional and produced by a generally fair and open democratic process? I would argue no. Civil disobedience has its place as a form of political expression, but stealthily using drugs with the objective of getting away with breaking the law is an act of selfishness, not civil disobedience. The responsible decision is to obey the law, even if doing so forecloses some pleasures, and in that respect responsible drug use is not possible in today’s society, even ex post.
I just don't agree that following the law is always inherently "responsible," except to the extent that the law will sometimes get back at you for non-compliance. Moreover, he’s responding to an article that went to great lengths to explain how prohibition interferes with the ability to use drugs responsibly (e.g., unknown purity of black market merchandise, breakdown of communication between users and medical professionals, laughably bad anti-drug education, etc.). Caulkins is entitled to his belief that it's always irresponsible to break the law, but that’s somewhat beside the point.

The concern that you can’t use drugs responsibly in violation of the law is a problem with the law, not a problem with drugs.
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

Fair and open democratic process? WTF?

This question from Jonathan bears scrutiny;

"Given that reality, is it responsible to willfully flout laws that are constitutional and produced by a generally fair and open democratic process?"

Has he ever read the history of how marijuana became illegal? There was nothing "fair" or "open" or "democratic" about it. How about the Shaeffer Commissions' recommendation many years later that marijuana be decriminalized? Nixon cherry picked the members of that commission, they took a fair, open and democratic look at marijuana and decided the laws were too harsh and ineffective. Nixon then slammed the door on the fair, open and democratic process and ignored the commission's report entirely. And now we have DEA raids in states where voters have decided -- through fair, open and democratic processes -- that marijuana should be made available to sick people.

I ask the following question with all due respect: Is Jonathan Caulkins a complete idiot? If he isn't, he needs to educate himself a little more about topics he chooses to address -- and choose his words a lot more carefully.

mariobamajuana

    consfearacy

Maybe the next congress will legalize adult possession of cannabis. What are the odds?

Several points of rebuttal to Jonathan Caulkins

"What distinguishes the Erowids is their assertion that modern humans must integrate psychoactive use into life. Apparently from their perspective, choosing abstinence, at either the individual or societal level, is inherently inconsistent with being modern.

Denying or denigrating an individual’s right to choose temperance is an extreme position not worth engaging."

Choosing abstinence at the societal level is impossible. And at the individual level, the Erowids' were not trying to "deny or denigrate an individual's right to choose temperance". Everybody is well aware that abstinence is a good choice, and the Erowids never stated they were against it. They want to create a culture of people who, if they decide to use drugs, are as careful as possible. I think that was well understood from reading their article. To jump from that to claiming that the Erowids want everybody to use drugs, and that they're denigrating those who choose abstinence, is a huge leap and an insult to them. It is also a necessary leap, i might add, if he doesn't want to recognize the validity of the Erowids' ideas.

"I am skeptical that they constitute a practical framework for social policy, as distinct from being useful guidelines for individuals who choose to use psychoactive drugs. Note, though, that nothing about American alcohol policy precludes application of these principles. So if their advocates are successful in taming the rather considerable problems with legal alcohol, then I would take more seriously claims about the Principles’ universal efficacy with respect to all psychoactives, including, say, methamphetamine."

He doesn't specify what "efficacy" means to him. I don't suppose he expects society can just rid itself from every drug related problem. What the Erowids' meant was that they wanted to move towards a culture that would minimize harms and maximize benefits. Does he have a better suggestion? The Erowids' also said that alcohol education in public schools prohibits mention of "responsible use". With that in mind, it makes sense to believe that we do indeed have a lot room for improvement in terms of alcohol related harms. And then he throws in the mention of methamphetamine just to sort of mock the possibility of harm reduction. Again, what does he suggest is the best way to educate people about methamphetamine? Plus, he fails to recognize that even if methamphetamine was legal, there is no way the level of use would ever rival alcohol's. Over 60% percent of people in the US use alcohol right now, and, I believe, about .3% of people use methamphetamine. And guess why that is? No, not because it's illegal. It's because PEOPLE MAKE CHOICES, which is precisely what the Erowids are advocating.

"Most affluent industrialized countries take a far less aggressive approach to their prohibitions than the United States does, yet they maintain prohibitions nonetheless. The problems with America’s prohibition stem primarily from particulars of its implementation, not from prohibition per se."

He does not explain how this is so, plus, he is wrong. Prohibition always creates a black market, and in most countries (even the netherlands), that black market is violent. He says the netherlands is the "poster-child" for legalization, but the netherlands if far from what we as reformers are advocating for (full legalization, with taxation and regulation of every substance, and no black market).

"Even at the individual level, I wonder whether these Principles are universal. They strike me as overkill for caffeine and thin protection for the average person contemplating daily crack use."

And what does he suggest is the best way to educate people about drug use?

"No one knows how legalization would change these probabilities. The Erowids might argue the risks would go down, particularly if their principles were applied. I would argue the opposite. The drugs would be cheaper, more easily available, and (likely) marketed aggressively; and their use would be less costly in terms of risk of arrest, loss of employment, and social approbation. In short, there would be fewer external constraints on use, and more frequent and heavier use increases the risk of dependence."

He fails to recognize that "risk of arrest, loss of employment" alienates drug users and makes it less likely for them to recover (if you're alienated form society, and if you can't get a job anyway, it's less likely you'll have the motivation to use more responsibly). Plus, his entire arguement falls apart if you take out the "more frequent and heavier use" part. He fails to explain why there would be more frequent and heavier use. Just because the drug is cheaper doesn't mean people are gonna overdose for fun. He seems to subscribe to the general prejudice that drug users don't care at all about their health and that they would never take any measures to control their use and minimize harms, which is precisely what the entire article he's responiding to was talking about.

"Civil disobedience has its place as a form of political expression, but stealthily using drugs with the objective of getting away with breaking the law is an act of selfishness, not civil disobedience. "

People use drugs for many different reasons, but never had I thought that their objective was "getting away with breaking the law". This is a gross mischaracterization of drug users, and shows how prejudiced his views are, and how little he understands why people choose to use drugs. If he has this attitude, it's no wonder that he can't accept the Erowids' good ideas.

and something else that I forgot

"....and their use would be less costly in terms of risk of arrest, loss of employment, and social approbation...."

Why would there be social approbation? It's sort of frowned upon in today's society to smoke cigarrettes, so other drugs, like cocaine, crack, heroin, and meth, would be ten times more socially disapproved, even if they were legal.

Boring rhetoric

Mr. Caulkins response to the Erowid post is so fraught with sophistry that I find it offensive. He states that the Erowid assertion that "Modern humans must learn how to relate to psychoactives responsibly, treating them with respect and awareness, working to minimize harms and maximize benefits, and integrating use into a healthy, enjoyable, and productive life.” is a condemnation of drug abstinence?
"What distinguishes the Erowids is their assertion that modern humans MUST integrate psychoactive use into life. Apparently from their perspective, choosing abstinence, at either the individual or societal level, is inherently inconsistent with being modern." With this statement Mr. Caulkins makes the assertion that the Erowids relativist position is in fact an absolutist position, that ALL must use drugs!!! This rhetoric attempts to justify a program of social engineering and have us believe that the removal of individual freedom of choice is in fact "choosing at the societal level".
Mr. Caulkins is the only absolutist here.
"Denying or denigrating an individual’s right to choose temperance is an extreme position not worth engaging." This statement is too obnoxious to respond to.
"Essentially every country in the world prohibits production and distribution of cocaine, crack, heroin, and methamphetamines for recreational use, even legalizers’ poster child, the Netherlands". This is a can of worms way too large to tackle in this letter. The U.S., acting through the U.N. after WWII enacted an international policy dedicated to the destruction of indigenous plant poison cultures; those cultures where opium, coca leaf, and cannabis were used. Interestingly, opium smoked does not lead to overdose. But opium is now illegal throughout Asia and has been essentially replaced by heroin and methamphetamine, thanks to U.S. drug policy.
"In practice, how responsible is use of drugs that are now prohibited? Most people who try an illegal drug do not harm themselves or anyone else. However, it is also true that most instances of drunk driving and speeding do not result in accidents, yet this does not mean that driving under the influence or speeding is a responsible way to drive." What? This attempt at metaphor is so weak as to make me question your capacity for honest critical thought Jonathan!
"Does society have a right to “protect” its citizens from a one-in-six risk of dependence, even though that “protection” denies five times as many people legal access to something pleasurable? The question is parallel to asking whether society has a right to pass a law against riding a motorcycle without a helmet, driving without a seatbelt, or swimming when there is no lifeguard." No Mr. Caulkins, your question is parallel to asking whether society has a right to pass a law against riding a motorcycle, driving, or swimming.
Carl

Prohibition

It DOESn't WORK. It can't work.

But, prohibition...

...does work, for tyrannies.Theres BIG $$$$ in prohibitions.Boring,dull ,specious sophistry,indeed.I wonder if he even cares, that informed people are laughing.Oh well, I'm sure he's well on his way to the next payday.

Control

From William Burroughs 1986 Thanksgiving Day prayer: "CONTROL, the ugly American....."

Universal Principles

Calkins writes:

"Even at the individual level, I wonder whether these Principles are universal. They strike me as overkill for caffeine and thin protection for the average person contemplating daily crack use."

They are universal. Caffeine is addictive, and all addictions drain your pocket. That's something to consider, and most people don't consider it. Doesn't it strike you as unusual the level of popularity that Coca-Cola has enjoyed all over the world for about a hundred years? Most people have been addicted to caffeine since they were children, so the thought of them being addicted never even crosses their minds. The Erowids believe that should change.

Plus, in many cases, caffeine even kills people. Probably not by drinking coke or coffee, but by taking those caffeine pills that they sell over the counter at some pharmacies. Many people take a couple of those pills to stay awake and be able to work long nights or to study, but some people take them for fun. Those things are dangerous. Not being aware of it, and thinking "what the hell, it's just caffeine", some people overdose on them.

In the case of crack, the principles also apply. I agree it's thin protection, but at least the principles can get people into a mentality of being careful. That mentality can mean the difference between trying the drug a few times for the sake of satisfying curiousity, and doing it for an extended period and becoming addicted. (Trying it only a few times is very possible, as "wrong" as it might sound to say that. According to samhsa, about three times more people smoked crack in the last year than in the last month (at the time the statistics were gathered.)) A mentality of being careful can also mean the difference between taking small hits with some time allowed in between, and taking a bunch of big hits in a row, which could result in a stroke or a heart attack (or in death). So yes, I agree it's thin protection, but a mentality of being careful can really make a difference. A mentality of being careful is what Erowid's Principles are all about.

You don't have to be pro-drug to be anti-Prohibiton.

You don't have to be pro-drug to be anti-Prohibition.

Democratic Process

"Given that reality, is it responsible to willfully flout laws that are constitutional and produced by a generally fair and open democratic process?"

This is probably the most dubious thing said in the entire piece. As mentioned by an earlier commenter, the process by which drugs became illegal was hardly democratic. More importantly, though, is that he asserts that the drug laws are constitutional. They technically are, but only because of some of the worst SCOTUS decisions known to man, interpreting the commerce clause to allow congress to do anything it feels like. So yes, once the Constitution was turned inside out, into the exact thing that it was carefully designed to prevent, then you could call drug laws "constitutional". Caulkins has no idea what this country stands for, and obviously has no concept of individual rights. A pretty sad argument all around.

Cultural development is the only way

Cultural development is the only way to improve the drug abuse situation. The ONLY way.

Moral Progress

“Moral progress has consisted, in the main, of protest against cruel customs….”—Bertrand Russell

Harm Reduction

"The question is parallel to asking whether society has a right to pass a law against riding a motorcycle without a helmet, driving without a seatbelt, or swimming when there is no lifeguard."
Helmets, seatbelts and lifeguards are methods of harm reduction, not prohibition.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <img> <i> <blockquote> <p> <address> <pre> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> <br> <object> <param> <embed> <b>

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School

StopTheDrugWar Video Archive