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Dr. Kevin Sabet's Kinder Gentler Drug War

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US News & World Report has been hosting a "Debate Club" regarding the War on (Certain American Citizens using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs. Reading the supporting pieces from Dr. Kevin Sabet and David Brooks makes me wonder if we're talking about the same Drug War that has killed 60,000 Mexicans, arrested 850,000 American pot smokers, and done nothing to combat actual drug problems.

My non-pot-smoking pal Dr. Kevin Sabet offers a piece entitled "End the 'War' But Not the Fight Against Drugs." You'll recall I debated Sabet back in March as he continued what I call his "Kinder Gentler Drug War" marketing. He's at it again, explaining how the "War on Drugs" is a bad metaphor, but he doesn't disagree with its basic premise: that the US government must use force to stop people from using drugs without bar codes on them.

Finding a smart way to reduce that market [for illegal drugs] -- by cutting its demand and supply -- is the shortest route out of the $193 billion in costs that society each year incurs as a result of drug use in America.

I have no idea where he pulls the $193 billion in costs figure from. Often, prohibitionists will cite "productivity losses" by comparing the incomes or net worth of drug users to the incomes or net worth of non-drug users. Surprise! Drug users make less money, often because they are arrested and incarcerated or drug tested and not hired for better paying jobs. If anyone who was ever caught drinking a beer was forced to check "Have you been convicted of a felony?" on their job apps for the rest of their lives, or randomly had their pee seized for detection alcohol that would cost their jobs, you'd see a whole lot of lost productivity from alcohol use, too.

Which begs the question: if drug supply and demand is so disastrous for our economy, why are there no serious efforts to reduce alcohol supply and demand? Heard any calls to set quotas on how much Budweiser can be manufactured, like the DEA restricts scheduled drugs? How about removing funny sexy beer ads from TV? How about mandatory 12-month alcoholic rehab for any drinker who commits a crime? I'll bet you an ounce of Oregon green bud that there is more lost productivity from drinkers hungover on Mondays and cutting out early on Fridays than from any pot smokers on the workforce.

This Oxford-educated Ph.D. seriously believes we can reduce supply of a weed that grows everywhere outside the Arctic/Antarctic circle? Can we please put dandelions and crabgrass in Schedule I, too? I'd like to reduce the supply of those weeds in my yard, because I have no demand for them whatsoever. And reduce the demand for weed? It might work if there were deleterious consequences from weed use like coke, meth, or smack use, but people demand weed so much more than other drugs because it is so pleasant and lacks serious side effects. You may as well try to reduce the demand for orange juice.

Intervention: If individuals do start to use drugs, we know that brief interventions (by doctors, coaches, parents, faith leaders, or others) do a pretty good job at stopping the progression of use from non-dependence to addiction.

So, are you saying a pep talk from doc, coach, mom, or pastor will stop the progression, so that a person can remain at the non-dependent use of marijuana? Just as we understand most people can drink alcohol all their lives at a non-dependent level? And who are these "or others"? Police and DEA, I suppose, who aren't so understanding about non-dependent use. They tend to throw those non-dependent users in a cage and take all their stuff. And inside the cage, there are plenty of drugs to be used and criminal traits to be learned. When you get out of the cage and are forced to check that "felony" box on job apps, turning to crime becomes more of a necessary option.

...newer interventions, like drug courts or interventions that combine positive drug tests with very short sanctions (like 1-3 days in jail) can significantly reduce drug use and help people live a better life.

Which is a great thing if you're talking about the hopelessly addicted meth user who is reduced to stealing copper wire from construction sites to feed his habit. But these interventions are applied to the college kid caught with a joint as well. So long as merely having the drug is the crime for which we sentence people to rehab, we'll be ruining lives and filling rehab beds with people who don't need them.

Targeted enforcement increases the price of drugs (and people adjust their drug use based on price) and puts the right people in jail for the public good.

Wrong on almost every count. The price of meth, cocaine, and heroin have plummeted over the course of the War on Drugs and their purity has increased. The only substance which suffered a massive price increase because of the War on Drugs is cannabis.

A street gram of 1981 Cost (Purity) 2009 Cost (Purity)
Cocaine $637.411 (40%) $184.73 (48%)
Meth $422.22 (46%) $175.66 (80%)
Heroin $1,934.27 (11%) $394.81 (32%)
Cannabis $8.81 (7.95%2) $14.12 (12.86%)

So every "hard" drug got cheaper while pot got more expensive. Combine that with the fact that drug testing catches marijuana metabolites for up to a month and "hard" drugs' metabolites for only three days, it would almost seem like the Drug War is all about incentivizing us to use more dangerous and addictive drugs!

What happens when you raise the prices on weed? Sure, some casual users may use less, but those are the once-or-twice a year smokers who won't mind if their "special occasion" costs $40 an eighth or $60 an eighth. But the regular users will take advantage of the price subsidy and sell enough of their stash with markup to be able to afford their own weed for free.

And think for a moment about that price support. Dr. Sabet claims people will adjust their drug use according to price, yet now as marijuana is as expensive as it has ever been, 26 million Americans are still using it at least once a year. Meanwhile, the murderous Mexican drug traffickers get extra profits from the crop that, by some accounts, makes up 60% of their business. Do you think there would be much business in growing marijuana in Mexico, shipping it past border security, and marking it up for $14/g sales to Americans if those Americans can get $7 grams in their local dispensary or grow their own weed for $7 an ounce?

It remains to be seen whether we will fully use these interventions to their full potential or instead throw up our hands and abandon all efforts as if nothing can ever work.

This is another one of Dr. Sabet's rhetorical distractions - trying to make you think that what we're advocating is "throw[ing] up our hands". This "Kinder Gentler Drug War" strategy depends on framing the current situation as "The Drug War We Have Now" vs. "Legalizing All Drugs For Open Sale at the 7-Eleven", so he can paint himself as the rational moderate staking out a position in the middle.

Here's how you deflate that balloon: What we advocate is legalization of drugs... but that is a broad spectrum that ranges from aspirin to morphine. Should pot be legal? Yes, probably not as legal as aspirin (in 7-Eleven, no prescription, kids can buy) but probably as legal as alcohol (special stores or sections in stores, carding for adults only). Should heroin be legal? Yes, but probably very close to morphine (clinical settings, doctor and prescription required) on the spectrum.

Remember that Dr. Sabet needs "drugs" to be a singular, not a plural, demonym. As in, "drugs should not be legalized" instead of "maybe marijuana should be legalized and we should discuss other drugs". Because marijuana separate from drugs destroys most of the arguments he has about addiction, productivity, and public health.

When he advocates all these Kinder Gentler Drug War axioms like "treatment" and "prevention", always bring it back to the personal, casual pot smoker. Does a person who smokes a joint once a year at Willie Nelson's Texas Jam need a mandatory 12-month drug treatment program? Should the government send SWAT teams into people's homes in the middle of the night to prevent them from smoking a joint? He'll try to play the "we don't actually do that to casual users" card, which you can either follow up with concrete examples of people this has happened to (easy enough to Google) or by asking "Why not? Are you conceding that some people can be marijuana users without being abusers? And if so, why does the law treat them like abusers?"

FOOTNOTES

1) All dollar figures adjusted to constant 2009 dollars.

2) Using federal seizures of sinsemilla only; ditchweed and domestic seizures would drive these purity (potency) figures down to 2.22% and 4.06%.

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