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Mark Kleiman vs. "Drug Policy Reform"

Cato Unbound has posted two more essays in its online series debating the meaning of responsible drug use. True Temperance from Jacob Sullum is typical of his rational approach to the topic and pretty much said what I expected from him, concluding that it isn’t the government’s role to restrict personal choices that don’t infringe on the rights of others.

Mark Kleiman’s piece Drug Policy in Principle, And in Practice was more of a challenge for me. On one hand, Kleiman was effective in clearing up some of the false distinctions put forth by Jonathan Caulkins last week, and I generally appreciated his theme that current drug laws just don’t reflect the relative risk associated with some of the most popular drugs.

Unfortunately, Kleiman also gives us a taste of what we can typically expect from him in terms of defending prohibition as the best policy with regards to the most dangerous drugs and looking at ways to make the drug war work better, rather than aiming to reduce its enormous size. Pete Guither covers that point well, so I’ll focus my response on this specific statement from Kleiman:

Cato Unbound is to be commended for having assembled a symposium free both of the usual drug war rant and of the usual "drug policy reform" rant.

Rather than acting all offended by this, I’ll just assume (generously) that Kleiman is merely enjoying how focused this discussion has been. It’s true that Cato has provided an opportunity to explore some central themes of the drug policy debate that are not always given the attention they deserve. Kleiman’s quip might be slightly less annoying than Caulkins "dull drug legalization debate" remark earlier in this same discussion, but it still requires me to ask at what point the advocacy of reform becomes a problem for Kleiman. Which of our talking points is he so sick of?

I ask because I simply don’t see "drug policy reform" as a single idea that one either agrees or disagrees with. You don’t have to even consider regulation of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine in order to conclude that we’ve made terrible errors in our approach to them. What disappoints me so much about Kleiman is not just that he refuses to consider post-prohibition solutions, but that he also appears to regard that as our sole agenda and sidesteps many of our legitimate concerns about the way the drug war is being fought at this exact moment.

Kleiman’s entire essay manages to avoid acknowledging one single negative consequence of the modern war on drugs. His habitual reluctance to acknowledge the harms of our current policy combined with his stated objection to hearing us "rant" about those things amounts to an apparent effort to pretend they aren’t happening. I have a better impression of Kleiman than to think he’s naïve or callous about incidents like the Rachel Hoffman or Kathryn Johnston tragedies, but I hope he realizes that most self-described drug policy reformers spend more time thinking about things like that than about how "crack should be sold at the 7-11." Even if I knew we couldn’t change one drug law in this country, I would still be asking why so many dogs are killed in drug raids, why so many warrants are issued based on unreliable informant testimony, why new mothers are losing child custody based on false positive drug tests, why the drug czar opposes needle exchange, why students with petty drug convictions are denied financial aid for college, why police are never sanctioned for destroying property and even killing innocent in botched drug raids, why we spray herbicides from airplanes on poor farmers in foreign countries, and on and on.

In fairness to Kleiman, this particular Cato discussion wouldn’t necessarily have been the best context in which to explore all of the different ways that our current drug policy produces incalculable injustices. I realize that. My point is that I’m sick of hearing knowledgeable voices like Kleiman and Caulkins express disinterest in the drug policy reform debate while their own ideas continue to focus so much on the drugs and so rarely on the war. Until they are prepared to meaningfully discuss the "war" part of the drug war, they have no credibility to dismiss our ideas, for they have yet to even address many of our foremost concerns.
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Mark Kleiman must be kidding himself

"The argument “Crack is bad; therefore psilocybin should remain illegal” is transparently false. But so is the corollary “Psilocybin has moderate risks and great potential in facilitating personal growth; therefore crack should be sold at the 7-11.”

Granted, those two are extremes and are bad ideas. However, note that he is willing to take one extreme idea (Crack is bad; therefore psilocybin should remain illegal) and bring it more to the middle, but he is not willing to consider taking the other idea (Psilocybin has moderate risks and great potential in facilitating personal growth; therefore crack should be sold at the 7-11.) and bring it more to the middle. Why is it so out of the question to have creative (and perhaps very strict) regulations on legal drugs?

"Caulkins and I could probably go on at length about all the ways in which the costs of the current prohibitions, especially in the forms of violence, incarceration, and infectious disease, ...

Perhaps he can reduce incarceration without completely repealing prohibition, but I doubt he can reduce violence (unless perhaps he's only refering to drug user violence and not black market violence, in which case, perhaps he can; but that's a very small fraction of the violence). And reducing infectious disease, yes, by needle exchange programs, safe injection sites, and other harm reduction measures that all of us are aware of and support. However, most of those harm reduction measures could be implemented with legalization just as effectively if not more so.

".... could be reduced without allowing the massive increases in abuse levels that would surely result from commercialization. [Boyum and Reuter 2005; MacCoun and Reuter 2001] ..."

I haven't read that because I don't know how to find it, but it seems suspect to me. It seems interesting that he uses the word "commercialization" and not legalization. It's probable that he's refering to some study that estimates the worst possible increase as a result of "commercialization", which probably means "hard drugs being advertised in Disney Channel at 11:00am, and some mathematical equation that calculates how much money is put into advertising and how that translates into use (disregarding the possibility that people can think for themselves and don't want to use crystal meth)". Of course, i have to admit, I haven't read it, so i don't really have any idea what it might say.

"To offer three specifics: We could reduce violence and drunken driving by raising alcohol taxes [Cook 2007, Cook forthcoming], ..."

Really? Then why not do the same with other drugs?

Plus, this is actually talking about alcohol user violence, not alcohol prohibtion violence.

"we could shrink the illicit drug markets and reduce recidivism by using drug testing and swift, automatic, and mild sanctions to force probationers to stop using expensive illicit drugs [Kleiman 1998, Hawken and Kleiman 2007, Schoofs 2008], ..."

Perhaps you can reduce recidivism a little with those mild sanctions, but how are you going to catch a significant percentage of drug users without, at least, drug testing, say, fifty percent of the population once every two months? Plus, how many parole officers would you have to hire to monitor all those people? Would the parole officers be drug tested too? And how do you expect to increase the price of illicit drugs if you can't tax them?

Again, I have to admit, I haven't read it, but it doesn't seem like it could work.

"and we could break up street drug markets, thus protecting neighborhoods, with low-arrest drug crackdowns [Kennedy 2008, Schoofs 2008]...."

Yeah, right.

"I would far rather discuss those opportunities for practical improvement than debate the largely academic question about whether the regulation of abusable psychoactives is a legitimate function of the state."

If he had ever lost his right to financial aid for his education, his right to live in public housing, his right to get a job, or if his house was invaded by a swat team and killed his dogs, or even worse, if he were serving a few years in jail right now, i'd like to hear him refer to the topic is "largely academic".

Drug Law Reform


All natural plants [ marijuana, poppy, coca, and mushrooms] should be legal. A regulated retail market would supply the < 40% market. Ecstasy will soon be available by prescription. A clean version of cocaine could arise under regulated conditions. OTC only. Economics ain`t rocket science. Ever notice at how " drug prohibition" came about not long after the end of " slavery". The prison farm became the new plantation. The history of " drug prohibition" is consumed with hypocrisy and corruption. Check out the 6 o`clock news tomorrow.

Internal Consumption


Is Marijuana the only evil plant? Surely there are others. What if the ONDCP were a plant? God forbid.

Boring Reform

I found Mr. Kleinman's argument to be so utterly subjective and convoluted in its reasoning that it is difficult to respond to.
"But although I have heard and read many accounts of the pleasures of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine use (and, for that matter, alcohol and tobacco use) I have never heard or read anyone explain what he or she purports to have learned from the use of those drugs, or any other sort of lasting benefit."
I have used heroin and other opiates as a substitute for opium (unavailable for the last 25+ years) for nearly 38 years. I have learned that the prevailing dominant culture is hysterical and hypocritical (and mean) though I admit this knowledge comes from the result of experiencing opium use in its current social context, that of legal persecution and not from opium use per se. I could say that I have learned that I possess a degree of stoicism in that for me addiction (which I embrace rather than succumb to) is not synonomous with "enslavement". I use opiates without fear of addiction or withdrawal and periods of using are punctuated with periods of painful withdrawal, recovery and abstinance. The only other drug I truly love is coffee which has taught me little if anything. My personal belief is that the necessity of "learning" as a result of using any particular drug should be a matter of individual choice. The "lasting benefit" I have received from using opium per se is an enhanced enjoyment of living.
"Caulkins can reasonably dismiss the benefits forgone in obeying the current drug laws as mere “pleasure,” because he is concentrating on drugs that merely give pleasure."
"Merely give pleasure?" Our puritanical society seems to respect pain but certainly downplays the value of pleasure when not demonizing it. I would argue that both pleasure and pain contain spiritual dimension.
"Still, I think Caulkins could make a plausible case that the decision to start to use alcohol or tobacco or cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine (in other than pill form) is an ex ante bad decision, because the relatively modest gain from successfully controlled use, multiplied by the probability of achieving controlled use, is outweighed by the very heavy losses from falling into even relatively transient abuse and the extreme losses from falling into chronic abuse, multiplied by those probabilities. The expected value of the gamble may well be negative, even if most people who take the gamble come out somewhat ahead of the game, because the average loser loses more than the average winner gains."
First, I am amused and bemused by Mr.Kleimans removal of speed "in pill form" from his list of "ex ante bad decisions". This mathmatical rhetoric seems better suited for an argument to close down casinos than to deal with a phenomenon as universal and inherently human as drugtaking.
I am of the opinion that we human beings should be judged for our actions when they are truly destructive and not by our deviation from the tastes of dominant culture in regard to drugtaking, a widespread and pedestrian activity.
And regarding the fear of "crack in 7-11" resulting when corporations take over and mass market all drugs? Another can of worms too large to tackle in this simple letter. Though I will suggest this: Essentially this has already happened.

Kleiman is not hard to figure out

Government funding has pretty much made a whore out of academia on issues of drug control and prevention.

Kleiman currently works as a consultant to governments from the local to federal level on crime control and drug policy. So on issues of drug policy reform, expect him to give a luke warm response that walks on a tight rope and will never have any significant influence towards improving this country's drug laws.

Besides, since when have mild-mannered, college professors played a significant role in any major social reform? They didn't get our country in this mess and they sure will not be the key players to get us out.


From the first time I debated Kleiman to the last, it was a rare pleasure.His sense of superiority over those who like or need drugs is magnificent, as his ideas about how people should live and aspire for ever greater greatness, as he so succesfully exemplifies.
If you can, try to meet with him, this delightful person.

Peter Cohen

Boring charm

Yes, Messrs. Kleiman and Caulkins; exemplars of the "discreet charm of the bourgeoisie".

Re: Kleiman

"His sense of superiority over those who like or need drugs is magnificent"

The road to the war on drugs was paved on such arrogance.

Uncontrolled illegal market Vs. Uncontrolled legal market

Quote by Kleiman:

"So given a straight-up choice between the current drug laws and a libertarian regime under which all drugs would be treated as more or less ordinary articles of commerce, I think about what the brewing and cigarette industries, and their marketing (and lobbying) arms, could do if given cocaine to play with, and recoil in horror toward the current state of affairs."

I wonder if there is any alternative path between the uncontrolled illegal drug market dominated by major drug cartels and laissez faire drug markets dominated by Big Tobacco & 7-11.

"Until they are prepared to meaningfully discuss the "war"..."?

Scott is a noble warrior... this buzz is for you!

'Of course the assholes aren't going to discuss anything meaningful..." because we keep bringing a pen to a gun fight.

These are the same machiavellian mofo's that insist we should tolerate the killing & incarcerating of those that dare to disagree... with their insane assertions and criminal acts!

Fuck these disgusting people... the law says you have the right to defend yourself, including pre-emptive self-defense, when it comes to protecting your inalienable rights.

A home invader is a home invader and should always be treated as such. A cops costume, a prohibitionists pretense, or a politicians paranoia should never be a serious consideration when it comes to enforcing your rights... for the simple reason that their lives are not worth your life, or your liberty, or your pursuit of happiness, or your legally acquired property, hell, their lives aren't even worth my dogs life!

Billy B. Blunt
Tacoma, WA

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