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Ask Auntie Pinko
September 19, 2002

Dear Auntie Pinko,

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 about this?

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 that rule.

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 it:

Whatever solution is likely to do the most to reduce the human misery.

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 and communities.

Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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