Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Drug policy reform: Cutting the Gordian knot

Sanho Tree, a drug policy analyst from the Washington based Institute for Policy Studies, has contributed a chapter on drug policy reform to a new book titled Mandate for Change, published this month and presented to the White House last week. In the chapter he explores a series of familiar approaches for positively reforming drug policy, as well as suggesting a novel approach - using secret ballots of legislators - to help move beyond the deadlock created by political fear of engaging with 'third rail' issues*.

Read the complete chapter (in pdf) here**

The problem The US faces is described:

Since President Richard Nixon first declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, the goal of a drug-free America is as remote as ever. Users who seek illicit drugs have little problem obtaining them cheaply, quickly and with ease. Indeed, the government’s own major indicators of success (measuring the price, purity and availability of drugs) show dismal trends. In 1969, the Nixon Administration spent $65 million on the drug war at the federal level; in 1982, the Reagan Administration spent $1.65 billion; in 2000, the Clinton Administration spent more than $17 billion; and the Bush Administration is currently spending well over $20 billion per year. We have had ever-harsher sentencing, and more people are employed to wage the drug war than ever before. The problem is not that we are under-spending or not being tough enough, but that drug war politics constantly gets in the way of sound, evidence-based policy. Not only can some drugs have very harmful results on physical and mental health, but the drug war itself is now causing as much (if not more) harm than the drugs themselves. This is not an acceptable substitute for an effective drug control policy.

Tree's outline plan for reform is summarised thus:
Reduce the potential harms caused by drug abuse.
  • Make prevention a priority.
  • Fully fund treatment on request.
  • Promote evidence-based harm reduction strategies.

Reduce the harms caused by the “War on Drugs.”

  • Promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level nonviolent drug offenders.
  • End major source country eradication programs.
  • End over-reliance on counter-productive crackdown policies such as the Merida initiative.
  • Stop searching for easy answers.
And he details the straw poll idea:

So how can politicians who care about getting re-elected make fundamental reforms without being electrocuted by the third rail? Just as the much-needed reforms of U.S. drug policy are counter-intuitive (where being tough is often the opposite of being effective), so too is the way out of this political stalemate. In order to get a more responsible legislature, it may be better to have less accountability—at least temporarily.

By utilizing a non-binding, anonymous straw poll, elected officials can express their true leanings without feeling the political backlash from myriad sources. While such a measure would have to be used as a “non-binding procedural aid” (the Constitution requires a recorded vote if one-fifth of the quorum requests it), an anonymous straw poll can produce surprising results and offer political cover during the debate over a binding recorded vote. Additionally, this temporary “veil of conscience” allows members of Congress to express their sentiments without crossing their party leadership, political donors, lobbyists and even their own electorate....

...An anonymous straw poll can create a temporary firewall separating sound public policy from partisan politics—or what Scott McClellan, Bush’s former White House press secretary, calls the permanent campaign. Indeed, this may be the only viable way to undo the polarizing legacy of Karl Rove. With so many crises to address and such powerful interests opposing reforms, Washington cannot afford to play partisan games and conduct business as usual. Those who were elected based on a pledge of a “different kind of politics” in a year of “change” should consider this method of cutting the Gordian Knot and breaking the logjam in Washington.

*The term 'Third Rail' issue, not really familiar in the UK, is described by Tree as follows:

The expression comes from the high-voltage third rail in a subway system and is used to refer to controversial issues that are thought to be political suicide for elected officials to engage. Other examples of third rail issues include U.S. aid to Israel, immigration reform, funding for law enforcement, gay marriage, military base closures, national health care, raising taxes, etc.

**Chapter reproduced with permission of the author


Anonymous said...

It does seem almost a flaw in democracy that elected politicians cannot have this debate. What results would a referendum yield? I suspect honest politicians (not an oxymoron I'm sure) who've actually thought about the debate would vote for sense and evidece. The secret ballot is vital for the public to vote but you can see the demand for transparency. Are there any other issues where this has turned around - the death penalty might would probably brought back if there was a referendum but is not on the political agenda, there must have been a significant change there but in the USA I imagine few politicians could speak out against it. Similarly far more US politicians than would be expected claim to be religious, I would go so far as to say clearly for electoral gain. Anyway, hope I've not wandered too far off topic, Niall.

Guernican said...

I'm sure you've heard of these guys, but if you haven't, their videos are a great watch.


Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to agree with Niallds. It would be nice to live in a world where politicians were prepared to lead rather than peering from behind the bushes to see if it is safe to come out but I suppose you have to be realistic.

For as long as the USA allows attack ads and we have the Daily Mail, it is hard for a politician to stand out against what is thought to be the accepted view.

I wholeheartedly agree with Tree's comment; 'Hyperbole about the dan-gers of marijuana can lead kids to dismiss the very important messages about the dangers of other drugs like methamphetamine and heroin'.

For me, if cannabis is in any way a 'gateway' drug it is because young people realise they have been lied to about its effects and assume all advice on drugs is lies.

Anonymous said...

Drug war rant is a good blog and I particularly recommend the analysis and comments in this piece responding to the Wall Street Journal.


It's been obvious for a long time that there will be no real improvement here in the UK until there is a sea change in US policy.