By Request: Your Crime Control Policy On Drugs


A couple of questions asking me about the so-called “war on drugs.” It’s a multifaceted issue, of course, and part of the problem with our current approach is that different substances are treated in fairly arbitrary ways rather than with any kind of serious look at the harms in play. In general, I favor paternalism and policies that discourage people from doing stuff that’s harmful so I don’t regret that you can’t buy heroin at the local pharmacist anymore. A few things I think:

  • Most jurisdictions should have higher cigarette taxes, though in some places it’s already so high that you’re starting to see substantial black market issues and those places need to be careful.
  • Booze taxes should be higher most places and more clearly based on alcohol content.
  • Conversely, restrictions on marijuana use should be eased. I think it’s good that we don’t have a “marijuana industry” with slick marketing campaigns and lobbyists on the Hill, but letting people “grow your own” in the basement and smoke it in your house would help undercut serious criminal enterprises and let people have some relatively harmless fun.
  • Treatment that works should be more widely available, but unfortunately my understanding is that there isn’t much in the way of effective treatment beyond things like methadone replacement for opium addicts.
  • We need to put much less emphasis on trying to fight drug abuse at the point of cultivation, which is taking a big toll on our foreign policy and not achieving much of anything.
  • When we arrest people who have hard drug problems, we need to rely much more on things like coerced abstinence from drugs and much less on willy-nilly throwing people into jail.
  • Law enforcement needs to get some reasonable goals in mind for its drug enforcement rather than “let’s seize a lot of drugs” or hazy and utopian efforts to eliminate the existence of illegal drugs. Maybe you’re targeting gangs that are killing people. Or maybe you’re targeting gangs that you hear are employing kids who belong in school. Or who are hassling people on the street. Conversely, you’re deliberately going easy on enterprises that are selling drugs out of a house somewhere but making trouble.

Those are some ideas, not by any means the last word. I think it’s really unfortunate that since the nineties crime drop, the public conversation about crime reduction has just vanished. It’d be one thing if the drop had been continuing, but in reality since the 2000-2001 recession we’ve generally been treading water. That doesn’t mean we need to “get tough” on crime, since we’re really past the limit where the “throw more people in jail” strategy is useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more we can or should be doing.