I read your article where you mentioned the law of diminishing
returns. It seems to me like if we were to analyze our current
"war on drugs" in light of this idea, we would de-criminalize
drugs. Everything I've heard on both sides of the line seem
to indicate we are paying more to wage our war on drugs than
would lose if we were to simply decriminalize the stuff. However,
as you know, drugs are still illegal, and conservatives seem
to want to keep it that way. What does Auntie Pinko think
Nameless in Detroit, MI
Dear Nameless Friend,
The "War on Drugs" is, indeed, another excellent illustration
of the law of diminishing returns- that is, roughly, that
if the cost of enforcing a rule is greater than the cost of
whatever might result from not having that rule, one should
probably consider very very carefully indeed before implementing
And I'm oh-so-glad that you put it in the terms that you
did, Nameless, using the word "decriminalization," rather
than "legalization." I think there may be some confusion between
the two. To "legalize" drugs would be for our government to
legally sanction (in the sense of permit or allow) the free
entry of drugs into the realm of commercial commerce and general
use. To "decriminalize," on the other hand, involves continuing
to sanction (in the sense of 'apply penalties to') the sale
or consumption of drugs, without applying criminal
penalties - as in, for example, locking people up in jail.
And that is precisely where Auntie stands on this issue,
which is fraught with human and social costs no matter what
part of the spectrum one occupies. Indeed, the whole issue
of addictive and/or illicit psychoactive drugs is a classic
lose-lose scenario. If we engage in vigorous prohibition,
we end up with the "War on Drugs." Millions of people in prison
at the public expense, huge profits ratcheting up the level
of criminal violence in trafficking, courts jammed, law enforcement
overwhelmed, geopolitical complications galore.
On the other hand, given the horrendous human and social
costs exacted by America's already-legal drugs- tobacco and
alcohol- I truly shudder to think of what freely available,
cheap drugs would end up costing us!
Nor does Auntie, who is surprisingly old-fashioned and moralistic
in some ways (you read it here first, friends!) approve of
my government actually profiting from the less admirable
forms of human self-indulgence. I regard it, in fact, as tacky
in the extreme, especially when government becomes dependent
on "sin taxes" at the same time it is decrying the "sin."
(Not to mention the fact that since an overwhelmingly disproportionate
share of sin taxes are paid by people least able to afford
them, it ends up being a nasty, sneaky, regressive way for
us to add to the tax burden of the poor.)
In short, there is no "perfect" solution to this problem.
Any choice we make will have costs. But then, so will
ignoring these issues, and doing nothing. So what does Auntie
favor? I'm guessing some of my alert readers are already saying
Whatever solution is likely to do the most to reduce the
And what is that? Well, it's hard to describe, Nameless,
because I favor an approach that mixes several options:
• First and simplest, decriminalization of drug consumption
and possession for personal use, with civil sanctions confined
to confiscation and citation. (There could be several implications
to citation- especially if the records of citations are, like
traffic violations, open to insurance companies.)
• Second (and also simple,) public investment in free
and sliding-scale addiction treatment facilities of various
types, including the full spectrum from detoxification and
intensive care through intensive outpatient and aftercare.
Also, public investment in research on addiction and possible
cures for addiction.
• Third (and again, simple,) retain criminal status
for "under the influence"- driving or operating machinery
or other activities which carry a demonstrably higher risk
factor when impaired. But use those criminal sanctions to
route people into addiction treatment programs in correctional
settings wherever possible. These offenses could be handled
through special courts or community courts solely focused
on drug-related problems.
• After that, it gets complicated, because different
drugs have different human cost factors. Depending on the
level of harm and havoc they cause to the addict- and the
level of harm they cause the addict to cause- I'd favor
different levels of civil (NOT criminal) penalties for dealing
and possession for trafficking purposes. Civil penalties meaning
fines, of course- calculated, in part, on the street value
of the substance in question, which would be confiscated and
destroyed. Those unable or unwilling to pay the fines would
be subject to liens, garnishment, etc., up to and including
criminal charges of contempt of court, if necessary.
• I'd also favor having a flexible set of education
and enforcement resources that can be "targeted" based on
localized epidemics. The cycle of drug trafficking and addiction
in this country shows a pattern, like any other epidemic disease,
of escalating and peaking use, followed by decline, then the
rise of a new epidemic. It moves in geographic clusters and
concentrations, and I'd target it like any other disease.
There is no "right answer" to this problem, and Auntie Pinko
is more than willing to admit that my approach is flawed.
But so, as far as I can tell, is every other approach. I hope
at least that mine carries a marginally lower cost to people
Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!
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