- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005


David Boyum and Peter Reuter

AEI Press, $20, 133 pages

There has always been a certain resistance on the right to the war on drugs. One of the most persuasive texts on that front came in 1972, when the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse put forth a report entitled “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” This document recommended decriminalization on the grounds that marijuana and its users did not sufficiently endanger the public safety to warrant criminal penalties.

President Nixon had no apparent use for the findings of his own commission’s study as he ran for re-election. But the report was not without its executive influence. President Carter, early in his term, referred to it when he argued that “penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to the individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use.”

Despite these strong words, Mr. Carter accomplished precious little on the national level in stemming overzealous enforcement of marijuana prohibition. His successors took a different tack than the one-term Democrat recommended, increasing penalties on drug users and helping the prison-industrial complex grow at nearly-exponential rates to house those caught in the web of illicit narcotics. But despite these efforts, America’s drug problem is legendary around the world. With that in mind, as Congress wrestles with the specter of twained budget and trade deficits, it is fair to ask: Why does it seem like the war on drugs is not simply a failure, but the kind of failure that seems more egregious with each passing year?

Many conservatives have wondered the same thing, and have condemned the inefficacy of the effort, especially regarding cannabis. But their often emotional appeals have yet to resonate with national policy leaders. In that context, the utility of this slender volume becomes clear. Using arguments rooted largely in cost-benefit analysis, the authors neatly debunk the drug war as it is currently fought. Decrying the lack of “strong empirical evidence of substantial effectiveness” of the effort, the scholars suggest that the drug war’s advocates be charged with providing said evidence.

And that is not a suggestion to take lightly. As the authors contend, the drug war has not succeeded in stemming the availability of either soft or hard drugs on the streets. There is little correlation, Mr. Boyum and Mr. Reuter claim, between even the toughest law enforcement and the reduction of drug use. Domestic drug use has yet to abate appreciably despite the staunchest efforts of police. Meanwhile, efforts by the United States to control the smuggling of narcotics into the country from foreign lands bear only modest returns. With enforcement bearing diminishing returns on all fronts, the authors, veteran observers of the drug war, argue that resources should be shifted from enforcement to a more “treatment-based” model.

It is striking how wide the gap is between action and perceived intent in the drug war. During President Clinton’s tenure, for example, the decrease in viable drug markets was greeted with increased drug incarcerations. The authors point such incongruities out at considerable length, while making the case that initiatives like the public-school DARE anti-drug education program, “this is your brain on drugs” — styled television advertisements and empty promises (like the vow made in the 1986 crime bill that America would be drug-free by 1995) have collapsed from their own unworkability. While that point has been noted elsewhere, the authors deserve kudos for showing, point by point, how, where, and why the drug war has failed.

There are areas where the book could have been improved. For example, the authors’ understanding of street drug use reads curiously dated, overemphasizing the late 1990s club staple MDMA (ecstasy) at the expense of drugs that boomed more recently, like the rurally popular methamphetamine. But it may be too much to expect an up-to-the-moment understanding of the vagaries of the street drug scene from a self-described “analytic assessment of U.S. drug policy.” For the most part, Mr. Boyum and Mr. Reuter succeed admirably here, taking a minority position on a hot-button issue and arguing it rigorously, honorably and unsentimentally, and recommending useful and timely reforms. Politicians thinking about running for president in 2008 would benefit from reading this book and internalizing its lessons.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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