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Chronicle Book Review: Drugs and Drug Policy

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #695)

Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, and Angela Hawken (2011, Oxford University Press, 234 pp., $16.95 PB)

Mark Kleiman isn't real popular among the drug reform set. The UCLA professor of public policy is no legalizer, and even though he's too much of an evidence-minded academic to be a wild-eyed drug warrior, he still seems to have an unbecoming fondness for the coercive power of the state. Kleiman, who gets top-billing over coauthors Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon and Angela Hawken at Pepperdine, also ruffles reformers' feathers with unnecessary snideness and snark.

But I watched Kleiman address Students for Sensible Drug Policy conventions a couple of times, and I thought it was a good thing, a very useful jolt to the group-think that can grip any gathering of congregants committed to a cause. I thought having the students have to hear the arguments of a leading academic thinker on drug policy who, while not "the enemy," was not especially saying what the average SSDPer wanted to hear, was salubrious for their critical thinking skills. I still think so.

In Drugs and Drug Policy, Kleiman and his coauthors continue with the occasional jibes aimed at the drug reform movement, at times reach conclusions at odds with my own, but also serve up a surprisingly chewy work of drug policy wonkery in delicious bite-size chunks. The innovative format, something like a series of FAQs organized within broader chapters -- "Why Have Drug Laws?" "How Does Drug Law Enforcement Work?" "What Treats Drug Abuse?" "Can Problem Drugs Be Dealt With at the Source?" -- allows us to unpack that all-encompassing monster called "drug policy" one subset at a time, and for that achievement alone, is worthy of praise. That it manages to cover so much ground in a paltry 234 pages is all the more laudable.

Overall, Drugs and Drug Policy is smart, reasonable, and thoughtful. It wants policies based on evidence and it advocates for some intelligent alternatives to current policies. It recognizes the utility of needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and opiate maintenance, even as it complains that "harm reduction" has been hijacked by legalizers. It explains that most people who use drugs -- even those diagnosable as suffering from substance abuse disorders -- will quit using drugs themselves without recourse to treatment. And it even allows that drug use can have beneficial effects, even if it doesn't do so until the seventh chapter.

But Kleiman et. al dismiss decriminalization as unlikely to have a big impact on the social fiscal burden of drug law enforcement because, even though it doesn't appear to have much impact on consumption, drug consumers are not, for the most part, filling our prisons -- drug dealers are. While they do concede that not criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens could have "significant benefits," they seem to underplay the negative, life-long impact of a criminal drug record on one's life prospects.

In fact, they seem all too comfortable with maintaining the pernicious role of the criminal justice system in drug policy even as they recognize that enforcing the drug laws is "unavoidably an ugly process," with its reliance on snitches, surveillance, and other "intrusive methods" of enforcement. To give them credit, they want smarter drug law enforcement -- concentrating police repression on violent drug dealers while turning a blind eye to discreet dealing, triaging coerced drug treatment spots so they are reserved for the people who could most benefit from them, giving up on interdiction and source country eradication as ineffective -- that might actually reduce the social and fiscal costs of both drug abuse and enforcement, and since drug prohibition isn't going away anytime soon, at least wasting less money on drug war tactics that don't work well should be on the table.

And they reject drug legalization as too scary to experiment with, but seem to imagine it as possible only within a corporate-controlled, heavily-advertised, low-priced scenario similar to that which has accreted around the alcohol industry. Yes, it's probably true that selling cocaine like Coors, would lead (at least initially) to a significant increase in use and problem use, but why does that have to be the only model? A government monopoly similar to the state liquor store model, with reasonable taxes and no corporate pressure to advertise could conceivably allow legalization without the increases in consumption that the authors predict, even though they concede they don't know how large they might be.

Still, when you get to what it is Kleiman et al. would do if they had their druthers, all but the most purist of legalization advocates will find a lot to like. They create three separate lists of recommendations -- a "consensus list" of reforms they think are politically doable now or in the near future, a "pragmatic list" of reforms that would appeal to dispassionate observers but could raise the hackles of moralists, and a "political bridge too far list" of reforms too radical for mainstream politicians to embrace.

The "consensus list" includes expanding opiate maintenance therapy, encouraging evidence-based treatment, early intervention by the health care system, encouraging people to quit on their own (as opposed to being "powerless"), relying less on interdiction, ending the charade that alternative development is drug control, and concentrating drug enforcement on reducing violence and disorder, as well as smarter, more effective coerced treatment in the legal system. If we saw the drug czar's office produce a National Drug Control Strategy with these recommendations, we would consider that a great victory. It ain't legalization, but its headed in a more intelligent, more humane direction.

The "pragmatic list" includes recommendations to lower the number of drug dealers behind bars, not reject harm reduction even if it's been "hijacked," stop punishing former dealers and addicts, reduce barriers to medical research on illegal substances, and be open-minded about less harmful forms of tobacco use.

The authors don't neglect alcohol and tobacco -- the two most widely-used drugs -- and that is really evident in their "political bridge too far" recommendations. The first three items there are aimed squarely at reducing alcohol consumption and its ill effects. They also argue for the legalization of individual or collective marijuana cultivation, a sort of legalization without the market, increased study of the non-medical benefits of drugs, and increasing cigarette taxes in low tax states.

I think Drugs and Drug Policy needs to be read by anyone seriously interested in drug policy reform. It hits almost all the bases, and it's well-informed, provocative, and challenging of dogmatic positions. You don't like the authors' conclusions? Refute them. It'll be good for you.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Gart Valenc (not verified)


In my view, what makes legalisati­on and regulation such critical an issue is the irrational­ity and the devastatin­g effects of Prohibitio­n and the so-called War on Drugs. Prohibitio­n is not, and has never been, the solution to the so-called drug problem; on the contrary, it has only made things worse. Therefore, IT IS PROHIBITIO­N ITSELF WHICH MUST BE ENDED. It should not be confined to a particular drug or to one side of the drug trade. It concerns not just marijuana, but all drugs; not just the legalisati­on and regulation of the demand but perhaps more importantl­y, the legalisati­on and regulation of the supply, too.


Gart Valenc


Wed, 08/03/2011 - 3:44pm Permalink
sickhaus (not verified)

Check out the review of this book and the comments (where Kleiman makes an ass of himself) at to see why you shouldn't buy this. Steal it, borrow, or torrent... just don't buy it.

Thu, 08/04/2011 - 12:26am Permalink
Jeffrey Dhywood (not verified)

I am currently finishing the last chapter of a book about the war on drugs subtitled “A roadmap to controlled re-legalization”.  I suspect that there will be much more for your readers to like in my own book than in "Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know".

I take a global perspective looking at all aspects of the issue, from the historical and ideological background of prohibitionism to the neuroscience of psychoactive substances, to initiation, drug careers and global youth culture, to the disastrous geopolitical consequences of the war on drugs. I target an international audience and the book will be also published in Spanish, hopefully in time for the 2012 Mexican election.

My approach is analytical and pragmatic, well documented, almost academic as I want to be as credible as possible and I want to be able to reach the widest possible audience. I try to cut through the moral and political posturing to lay out a realistic roadmap to global legalization under a multi-tier “legalize, tax, control, prevent, treat and educate” regime. Obviously, heroin and amphetamines cannot be handled like marijuana.

I have spent a lot of time looking at the re-legalization issues from a harm-reduction perspective, focusing especially on initiation to hard drugs and youth access and there are good reasons to believe that the solutions I advocate would actually reduce hard drugs use and abuse.

Far from giving up and far from an endorsement, controlled legalization would be finally growing up, being realistic instead of being in denial, being in control instead of leaving control to the underworld. It would abolish the current regime of socialization of costs and privatization of profits to criminal enterprises, depriving them of their main source of income and making our world a safer place.

Most of what I have read about legalization (typically against), take a caricatured model that is too easily demolished. I clearly demonstrate that there is a realistic and viable pathway to legalization that would bring effective control to the psychoactive marketplace from the producer to the consumer and would actually reduce abuse of the most harmful substances and their most harmful mode of administration. Not only that, the world is much bigger than the US and the solutions I advocate stand some reasonable chance of being acceptable to a coalition of Latin and European countries, although with the current poisonous climate around the banks of the Potomac, the chances of the US joining such a coalition are even slimmer than the odds of the US joining the Kyoto protocol some 20 years ago.

Thu, 08/04/2011 - 2:26pm Permalink
Mark Kleiman (not verified)

I'm grateful to Philip Smith for his generous and fair-minded review, but it's only fair to note that the book has three authors, not one. Which of us was going to be listed as the lead wasn't determined until the end, and the result could have been different without any injustice. The book is a collaborative product in the fullest sense.

As to sickhaus's concern about enriching me, my share of the royalties comes to about two bits per book.

Thu, 08/04/2011 - 9:01pm Permalink
Brian Kerr (not verified)

Drug Prohibition is immoral. I own my life and body and consciousness.

Any body who thinks they can seize owner ship of my existence is a piece of shit, period !

There is nothing wrong with taking drugs or medicinal plants or plant teachers.

Thu, 08/04/2011 - 10:39pm Permalink
don quiote (not verified)

First let me thank Phillip Smith For his thourough and unbiased reveiw of Drugs and Drug Policy. So thorough

if fact that he took this edition of "established thinkers go re-establish what is established". If , may I call you

Phil? thx...Phil had given these academic giants (sarchastic) any more credit for forward thinking I just may 

have tollerated the probable endless chapters of "whats wrong with the system" and "three academics collect

the facts again". just to hear what their visions of what an informed and sustainably improved drug policy world

would look like. I imagine the   refinements you've developed over the years caustioshly dealing with people

whos ideas seldom align with your own is a book I might read.

              I wondered why it would take 3 people to write a book on drugs and drug policy, when their own

interpretations and conclusions should hopefully be different..But then this book wasnt about drug policy

reform.It was about drugs and current drug policy. That think tank needs constant reassurance or their

reasoning would eventually dissolve. Drug policy -reform- thats where you guys come in.right! Maybe youcould

write one Phil, then you would'nt have to waste ur time reading theirs.Thanks for saving me the time on this one.

                                               Sustainable intellect.great boogally        Gary Dobbins

Fri, 08/05/2011 - 6:55am Permalink
John Marks (not verified)

Good review by Phillip Smith and an important reminder of the Popperian motto: you learn most from your critics; there's no point in preaching to the converted anyway - I'd second the encouragement to sit down and write a refutation of the points where you disagree with Kleiman.

Also, I very much like Jeffrey Drywood's introduction of the term "re-legalization" into the debate because, of course, that's what any legalization would be and all parties to the debate should be aware of that as well as Joe Public being educated about an important piece of history, in particular that the country didn't fall apart when opiates were legal.

Mon, 08/08/2011 - 4:29am Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

Ever looked anywhere but in the US?I think the book should have been called drug policy in America.There are places on Earth that have abandoned the prohibition model entirely and with reductions in drug use.

Tue, 08/16/2011 - 1:50am Permalink

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