Inter-American Dialogue has published a new report with the Beckley Foundation, which,  “offers six proposals to set the stage for a thorough rethinking of the US and global approach toward illicit drugs”.  The six proposals are:

1. Support recent Congressional initiatives in the House and Senate to establish commissions to review US anti-drug strategy and related policies, and develop alternative domestic and international approaches. Make sure that all US government agencies cooperate fully in these reviews.

2. Join with other key nations to organize an inter-governmental task force on narcotics strategy that would review and appraise global policy efforts on drugs. The purpose is to assess the costs and effectiveness of bilateral policies and programs and those of multilateral agencies; how they can be made more effective; and how cooperative initiatives can be strengthened.

3. Press for a comprehensive review of existing treaties and obligations that provide the legal underpinnings of the international narcotics regime. Instead of continuing to rigidly  support these UN treaties, which have guided global activities for the past two decades, but are now outdated, the US government should be at the forefront of efforts to renew and reform them.

4. Substantially expand data collection and analysis on all important aspects of the drug problem, and the policies and programs designed to address them. Encourage other governments and multilateral agencies similarly to develop better data and statistics on drug-related issues.

5. Finance a range of research and analysis of multiple aspects of the problem—and encourage other countries to do likewise, and make the efforts comparable. Some of this research should be physiological and health related, to better understand the varied effects of drugs—in the short and longer term—and possible ways to reduce addiction and negative side effects. Others should be on the economic, social, and criminal aspects of drug use.

6. Identify drug programs and initiatives at the community, state,and federal levels that promise real benefits in such areas as reducing drug addiction and the health risks of addicts, increasing prospects of training and rehabilitation for those convicted of drug offenses, and decreasing drug related crimes. These initiatives and others should be systematically monitored and evaluated to determine whether they should be scaled up and extended. Other countries should be encouraged to identify and carefully study especially promising anti-drug efforts.

On the whole, it’s a good report.  Its review of the challenges facing the states, and the political constraints of those who are pro-reform are accurate.  But there is also some muddy thinking.  I think my main bone of contention is with this statement:

Fear of illicit drugs—as a source of crime and violence and, even more, as a magnetic temptation for children and teens—is still a powerful deterrent to any public support for relaxation of hard-line, punitive antidrug policies. The arguments favoring change, moreover, appear to many to be defeatist and unprincipled. They indicate a willingness to tolerate activities that we know to be harmful, dangerous, and immoral.

Why is drug use immoral?  I guess the drug trade can be immoral, and drug addicts, like the rest of humanity, can be immoral- but drug use?

The other section I struggled with was the report’s critique of the limitations of a harm reduction approach:

Part of the answer is that no existing policy option offers a solution to the problem. No serious analyst suggests that drug consumption can actually be eliminated or even reduced very much. The alternative framework that has gotten greatest attention is not even aimed at curbing drug use. The so-called “harm reduction” approach is, instead, directed toward identifying and putting in place policies, laws, and practices that can diminish the damage that drugs and anti-drug measures do to individuals and their families, communities, and nations. Many advocates of this policy change acknowledge that efforts to lessen the harm that drugs inflict on people and society may actually lead to higher rates of consumption.

Alternatives that do not constrain consumption (and may even lead to greater use) have little appeal to parents who want to keep drugs away from their children—and even less to those who view drug use through a moral lens, and favor the “no tolerance” approaches that have long shaped US policies. Strategies like harm reduction are complex to explain and do not inspire much enthusiasm. On the contrary, they are easy targets for criticism, and often provoke fervent opposition. They appear nakedly pragmatic, short on principles, and a sign of resignation. They require trade-offs and choices that people do not want to make. Politically, there is not much to be gained by advocating them. Yet they are currently the best available.

I guess in terms of the audience that the report is trying to reach, the tone is probably appropriate.  There is some value in slowly inching our way towards less punitive criminal justice sanctions for users.  But decriminalizing marijuana use isn’t going to do much to reduce the violent drug-related crime in inner-cities, or the drug wars tearing apart Mexico. More data and research aren’t going to change the minds of people who see drug use as ‘immoral’ , any more than they influence attitudes towards climate change or the death penalty.  Maybe more investigations and reviews will raise the tone of the debate in Congress, but I’m disappointed that the report pulled its punches and steered clear of embracing the question of legalization and regulation full-on.

via Transform