The debate over drug policy is one that is embedded in both the American tradition of individual liberty and the nation’s moralistic, binary notions of “good” and “evil.” Some modern theorists, such as Ethan A. Nadelmann, see the criminalization of drug use in America as a counterproductive tool that diffuses and multiplies the problems of drug abuse and its attendant social ills. Others, including James Q. Wilson, former Chairman of The National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention, remain skeptical, and believe that decriminalization would merely exacerbate the already crippling deficits America has in citizen drug-abuse reduction efforts. Can drug distribution and [ab]use be normalized?
How do we weigh these contrasting points? First, it is helpful to lay out Nadelmann’s main criticisms of the current drug enforcement policies of the United States. First, Nadelmann argues that criminal justice based drug control strategies are significantly limited in their ability to curb drug abuse, saying that American efforts to control the production and distribution of illegal drugs in other territories, namely South America, have met with marginal affect on price, availability and consumption. Secondly, Nadelmann stresses that law enforcement procedures are not only fiscally exorbitant but indeed can be counterintuitive to stated prevention and reduction goals. In 1987, for example, total government expenditures to the regulation and enforcement of illicit drug laws exceeded $10 billion, and where policies have been aimed at eliminating the allure of drug-dealing, criminalization has raised the prices of illicit drugs, thereby empowering drug dealers to demand higher sums of money from consumers. Additionally, while Nadelmann admits to an ultimately unclear relationship between drug use and crime, he argues that, intuitively, the legalization of drugs would lead to concomitant reductions in criminal activity, such as robbery and homicide, given users’ removed impetus to recklessly acquire and distribute drugs.
Nadelmann outlines alternatives to drug prohibition policies. Beginning his argument, he notes how a reduced commitment to illicit drug enforcement would lead to a net benefit of a multi-billion dollars a year to be spent on developing and resituating nationwide drug treatment programs and education policies, summarizing with a claim that the fruits of decriminalization would be overall improved health and thus agency for victims. Here, Nadelmann draws an important analogy between illicit drug abuse and alcohol abuse, suggesting that the latter extols a far greater, yet largely ignored, burden in mortality and financial expenditure (50,000 to 200,000 deaths per year as a result of alcohol and $100 billion spent on alcohol abuse) as compared to the far smaller margins being reported for the combined impacts of illicit drugs on mortality and government expenditures. With respect to the intensity of drug use following legalization, Nadelmann envisions a society where illicit substances would be less popular than their alcohol or tobacco brethren, where users would be less inclined to inject drugs into their veins and thus reduce the prevalence of transmittable diseases such as HIV. Nadelmann further illuminates the constructive role that consumptions taxes and education can play in the reduction of drug abuse as has been seen in the strides public health advocates made during the implementation of smoking cessation programs over the past two-and-a-half decades.
Molly, percocet. Molly, percocet. – [The] Future
Nadelmann circles his own argument noting that, like tobacco and alcohol, most illicit drugs can be used responsibly and in moderation by individuals without fear of harm beyond what we deem “acceptable.” Unfortunately, this biological gradient beyond which we would consider strict drug abuse enforcement necessary is something Nadelmann does not fluidly specify for his audience. Since America has created a gradient for alcohol, blood alcohol content levels (where a 0.08 score demarcates the line between unpunishable and punishable intoxication levels) future decriminalization proposals need to delineate what we would be considered moderate intoxication thresholds for mind-altering drugs. Therefore, a harm reduction strategy, which recommended and enforced acceptable levels of drug consumption, might complement a decriminalization program well. The public would easier accept a decriminalization policy if there was an understanding that at some chemical “peak” we should begin to consider one’s drug use to be wantonly harmful to both himself and/or society at large—and I believe that the success of the program will largely hinge on the public’s understanding and approval of the program’s boundaries rather than its central purpose.
— Ethan Nadelmann (@ethannadelmann) July 20, 2017
James Q. Wilson, writing a commentary called “Against the Legalization of Drugs,” provides a refutation of many of the points Nadelmann made concerning the need to refocus our thinking about drug enforcement. A central dichotomy between Wilson and Nadelmann is the moral weight that Wilson places on the use of mind-altering drugs as compared to tobacco or alcohol; the former Wilson regards as destroying “the user’s essential humanity,” while the latter simply (emphasis added) shortens one’s life. Here, Nadelmann’s core foundation, the labeling theory of deviance, can be seen in effect; he dangerously separate humans into both a “physical” entity that has health and a “metaphysical” entity that has morals, believing the community as a whole is bound to the our metaphysical entities, and indeed that the health of the community depends on the health of each individuals’ metaphysical entity. There is a risk with this type of abstract parsing.
When it comes to the “physical” entity, Wilson’s argument skirts Nadelmann’s strong point that, over the long run, alcohol and tobacco are no less problematic to one’s health than illicit drugs are, admitting himself about addiction that “there are no scientific grounds for predicting who will and who will not become dependent [on illicit drugs]” and thus, in my opinion, no way to objectively map how positive or negative a net impact decriminalization would have on an individual or community level. Wilson’s stance is mechanistically flawed because he engages a peripheral ethical debate instead of a debate on pragmatic realities which are, as Nadelmann studiously notes, that current drug enforcement policies have had marginal success, if any at all, in reducing drug sales or drug abuse patterns and merely maintain status quo. And to that end, Wilson, unlike Nadelmann, fails to acknowledge that, within the American drug abuse pattern, is weaved a system which disproportionately affects minority groups by inflaming and promoting discriminatory criminal dispositions as well as deepening the socioeconomic and health-related disparities that exist within already disadvantaged aggregates—a corrosive effect that acts to the detriment of the entire American politic.
Wilson, unlike Nadelmann, fails to acknowledge that, within the American drug abuse pattern, is weaved a system which disproportionately affects minority groups by inflaming and promoting racist, discriminatory attitudes as well as deepening the health disparities that exist within already disadvantaged aggregates—a corrosive effect that acts to the detriment of the entire American politic.
Whereas Nadelmann directly confronts the labeling theory which Wilson’s hegemonic proposal primarily promotes, Wilson delves into a sort of cynicism: “Drug dependent people have very short time horizons and a weak capacity for commitment.” Is that not the very reason why they deserve to be our primary focus? To his credit, Wilson invites a potentially useful but ultimately stalled conversation about the role of compulsory treatment in a drug-legal environment, weaning off his commitment to such an approach when he considers the impracticability of drug abusers going into compulsory treating for a legal substance. Ultimately, Wilson’s conflation of issues fails to tinge the debate with the appropriate social history, placing excessively subjective normative stock in the notion that “good character is less likely in a bad society” when no pool is created to determine who the true victim is, the person who freely sows his own seeds of addiction or the society whose strict enforcement policies consign him unnecessarily to so few desirable options.
The most notable and crucial criticism Wilson evokes regarding Nadelmann is the lack of temporality in Nadelmann’s claims regarding what cause will give way to what effect. Oftentimes, as Wilson notes, Nadelmann’s arguments about causality are jarring at first glance. Nadelmann says, for example, “a legalized drug (alcohol) produces greater harm than illegal ones (cocaine and heroin),” which indeed could be said if the opposite scenario were in play and cocaine and heroin where the legal drugs and alcohol the illegal substance. This is worth pointing out because both Nadelmann and Wilson are willing to admit that there is no way to know what could have been or what could be given how the conflicting record we have of the history of alcohol prohibition and the rise and fall of smoking in America fails to shed sufficient light on what happens when deviant activities are made acceptable. Accordingly, it can be said that the proposal being championed by Nadelmann requires some degree of experimentation which the public may need to be sold on—and that alone could be pause for many American, regardless of their prior ideology, for not being comfortable with their government implementing such a seemingly subversive and apocalyptic program.
On the other hand, the doomsday scenario painted by Wilson regarding decriminalization, wherein states, across sociocultural gradients, would furnish a “permanent population of several million, not several thousand, heroin addicts” and astronomical crime and social degradation levels appears to be a hyperbolic scare tactic that intuitively underestimates the actual calm of Nadelmann’s proposals. Indeed, the gradual approach of Nadelmann may be his admittedly contentious plans’ saving grace: “controlled drug legalization is not an all-or-nothing proposition” given the political realities, therefore any movements towards legalization will be deliberate, paced and measured, giving “ample opportunity to halt, reevaluate and redirect” unsound policies. Such a rollout can be achieved by poised, controlled implementation of policies in suitable areas. With that in mind, might Wilson, who says, “If [I am wrong], then will needlessly have incurred heavy costs in law enforcement” be willing to adopt Nadelmann’s gradual approach to the decriminalization process, given that his main opposition to legalization appears to be based at least in part on the mere speculative nature of the ultimate impact of legalization’s aftershocks?
Wilson ultimately attempts to forge moral and communitarian language into the notion of inherent individual, while Nadelmann explores the intentions of the individual, illuminating a fundamental disconnect between those for and against drug legalization. Yet both authors, despite their stark differences, seem to agree that the lack of clarity in the history of drug regulation, whether it be tobacco, alcohol or caffeine, is so objectively unclear that even the most robust analysis would fail to capture the nuances of the debate, the intricacies of individual liberties as they interface with broader societal imperatives. Unlike Britain and other European countries, where, as Wilson notes, more lenient stances have been taken against drug enforcement policy—largely because the drug culture had not flourished in the way it had in America—I acknowledge that the sociocultural climate in America does not yet exist where proposals akin to those of Nadelmann would be received as brazen and innovative rather than radical and hedonistic.
The sociocultural climate in America does not yet exist where drug legalization proposals akin to those of Nadelmann would be received as brazen and innovative rather than radical and hedonistic.
In order to succeed, legalization proposals must be tempered with language about specific at-risk populations and neighborhoods that could benefit from decriminalization—populations not exclusively including upper-class abusers and what I believe Wilson rightly terms as “cocktail party pundits” with more agency and social capital. Absent these specifications, Nadelmann’s voyage for even the gradual legalization of drugs would duly be considered flagrant to the human intellect and an unparalleled danger to the health and security of Americans everywhere.
Ultimately, Nadelmann’s proposal requires quite a substantial leap of faith from both policymakers and mainstream America. On the other hand, ongoing implementation of Wilson’s proposal and its satellite variations would merely maintain the status quo—a faux herd immunity wherein at least some portion of the population, around 80%, remain free of drugs and its peripheral effects on communities, while the other 20%, most of them already at a socioeconomic disadvantage, are circulated through the public welfare system or criminal justice nexus to later return to the streets and live the lives of desperation and poor health which, in part due to dominant theories such as Wilson’s, have come to shape the mode of life in urban, low-income environments hit hardest by the drug culture. At any rate, policymakers must be cognizant of the scope of both prospective plans and determine the appropriate scale for their interventions with core social and psychic costs under consideration.
As Wilson exudes pride about the conduct of his administration in not “running up the white flag of surrender” and creating “a more or less stable pool of heroin addicts… with relatively few new recruits,” Nadelmann views this war valor hesitantly, seeing, if anything, a potentially increased conflagration of social ills over time. While legalization all but inevitably means that there will be an increase in illicit drug availability, Nadelmann’s insights into the dearth of evidence to indicate that drug abuse and its concomitant effects would also increase are convincing. Using the gradual approach highlighted by Nadelmann, how could a measured, reactionary implementation of drug legalization not serve best the interests of those most intimately affected by the still very much fluid system of drug abuse and victim alienation in America?
Fucking mask off, indeed.
Make sure to read:
Nadelman, “Drug Prohibition in the United States: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives,” Science (September 1, 1989).
Wilson, “Against the Legalization of Drugs,” Commentary 89:2 (February 1990) 21-28.
("Mask Off" footage courtesy of Epic Records.)