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June 30, 2012 12:36 PM Drug Policy Reform and Argumentative Positioning

By Ryan Cooper

There is a group of moderate drug policy reformers (and good friends of the Monthly) centered around the group blog The Reality-Based Community, including folks like Mark Kleiman and Keith Humphreys. As far as I can tell, their position is that current drug policy is terrible and destructive, but full legalization (as in how alcohol is treated) of illegal drugs would also be bad policy.

These guys have done a lot of great work—in particular, I highly recommend Kleiman’s book When Brute Force Fails, an excellent and surprising proposal to improve our atrocious criminal justice policies. But they have a rather foolish tendency to attack the “legalizer” community, efforts which are not only misguided, but self-defeating. The best comparison I can make is to the liberal moderates who spent far too much time attacking the far left in the run-up to the Iraq War:

Driving the ineffectual liberal response was the continuing near-pathological obsession with the far left, the sentiment that in a moment of national crisis the most important task facing liberalism was not to combat the errors of in-power conservatism but those of the hopelessly marginal left, who became the primary target of their rhetoric. In some cases, it seems reasonably clear that simple loathing of left-wing antiwar activists pushed liberal intellectuals into support of the Iraq War. But even many mainstream writers and pundits who would eventually reject the war contributed to the problem in the early postattack months, in effect firing in the wrong direction for so long that they wound up outnumbered and outgunned when they finally switched targets.

I should emphasize that this is a strategic comparison. I’m not comparing anyone to the morally odious 2002 liberal hawks, or making a substantive argument. (I would favor more liberal policies than the RBC gang, but their proposals would surely be a great improvement over the status quo.) The point is that the “legalizers,” which are few and powerless, aren’t just a pointless waste of ink and oxygen, they’re actually helping the RBC case by making them seem like the sensible moderates. Kleiman and company should welcome these folks as holding down the flank of the debate, and focus their attacks on Joe Arpiao and the DEA.

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Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on June 30, 2012 1:52 PM:

    Yeah, everybody hates us lefties.

    People always hate people who are always right - make that "correct" - the "right" has never been correct.

  • Anonymous on June 30, 2012 2:04 PM:

    "The point is that the “legalizers,” which are few and powerless, aren’t just a pointless waste of ink and oxygen, they’re actually helping the RBC case by making them seem like the sensible moderates. "

    Indeed and the RBC gang can make optimal use of the precious hippies by bashing them (or us ... I'm not a full out legalizer but like you am out beyond Kleiman).

    They only hold down the flank so long as Kleiman et al bash them. Otherwise Kleiman and all are on the flank. I think with "focus their attacks" and most definitely with " in effect firing in the wrong direction" you are letting a metaphor do your thinking for you. Debate is not like a gun. Criticizing people to one's left can strengthen ones critique of those to one's right (and vice versa).

    I think hippy punching is and long will be part of any successful progressive rhetorical strategy in the USA. I am equally willing to be the hippy who is punched or to punch hippies.

  • dr2chase on June 30, 2012 2:40 PM:

    These allegedly "reality-based" moderates are full of shit, and I see no reason to be the least bit polite about it. Portugal. "Sensible" half-measures waste time, money, and lives.

    Similarly, the Iraq war was a mistake and a fraud, and this was obvious from the start, and the "sensible" "moderates" who supported it, were idiots then, and are idiots now.

  • buddy66 on June 30, 2012 2:48 PM:

    It's an old story. The radical left is always opposed by the petit bourgois liberals right up to the point when it's obvious the rads were right all along.

    Incidentally a "hippy" is a hippie with a fat ass. I don't care how the brits spell it; it's our word and "hippie" is how we spell it.

  • Doug on June 30, 2012 4:21 PM:

    Legalization would bring with all the terrors of Madison Avenue, a fate devoutly NOT to be wished.
    Decriminalization for users, on the other hand...

  • Mitch Guthman on July 01, 2012 12:33 AM:

    There seems to be an implicit assumption here that outright legalization is the position of the left or that it is in some sense an important liberal position. That seems rather presumptuous. Legalization of drugs seems to have little connection to the traditional concerns of the left related to social change to create a more just society or to improve the lives of the poor. I do not believe that there is the widespread consensus among those on the left in favor of legalization and certainly not one sufficient to justify the claim that it is “the position of the left.”

    Surely one ought to be able to debate the question of legalization without being branded as a “hippie puncher”. Indeed, I believe that most of the American left and center-left would regard the point made above by Doug to justify considerable skepticism about whether legalization would be genuinely good for society.

    Again, the question should be openly and freely debated. But it seems presumptuous to claim (without evidence) that one’s position is that of the “left” and denounce as reactionary anyone who advocates a different policy.

  • Cranky Observer on July 01, 2012 8:54 AM:

    During the various pleas for donations to the "Washington Monthly" posted on this blog over the last few weeks I was wondering if the staff of said magazine had ever apologized for standing as midwife to the birth of neoliberalism. Based on this post, clearly not. Here's a hint Mr. Cooper: the whole neoliberal thing didn't work out real well for the nation; perhaps you should consider that before undertaking another program of Very Serious Centerists bashing "the extreme left".

    Cranky

  • SadOldVet on July 01, 2012 9:28 AM:

    ...it seems reasonably clear that simple loathing of left-wing antiwar activists pushed liberal intellectuals into support of the Iraq War.

    I call bullsh!t on this statement. The reason the Clintonistas and the 'so called liberal intellectuals' support the Bush invasion of Iraq was pure and simple out and out fear of being on the wrong side of 'public opinion'. Proof that 'selling a war like you sell toothpaste' can convince the ameriKan sheeple, especially with the media acting as pimps for Bush's war.

    Anyone and everyone with a brain who looked at the marketing effort of the Bush administration had to see that their effort was based on lies. But then again, we will probably go thru the same crock of sh!t when we attack Iran. The media are following the same script now. The script written by AIPAC and the Likud Party.

  • TooManyJens on July 01, 2012 7:07 PM:

    Legalization of drugs seems to have little connection to the traditional concerns of the left related to social change to create a more just society or to improve the lives of the poor.

    The drug war is most certainly connected to important concerns of the left such as poverty and racial inequality. The devastation of targeted communities by the drug war helps keep them poor.

  • Mitch Guthman on July 01, 2012 10:28 PM:

    @ TooManyJens,

    With respect, you are attacking an argument I am not really making. I don't disagree that poverty and racial inequality are indeed core issues for the left. Likewise, I can see where different resolutions of the drug problem will have significant consequences for those issues and for minority communities, in particular. I can even see how, in the miasma of the American culture wars, drug control strategy might be viewed differently by the right and that left.

    Nevertheless, none of that is relevant to the points I was making, namely, (1) that there is not a single approach to the drug problem that is widely identified with the far left in the context of drugs in the way that, for example, single-payer was in the context of the health care debate. There are plenty of people on the left who advocate strongly for other policies and I don’t see why their proposals are less “legitimately left” than legalization; and (2) that the writers at the RBC are not necessarily “Hippie bashing” when they critique legalization proposals.

  • cmdicely on July 02, 2012 10:19 AM:

    As far as I can tell, their position is that current drug policy is terrible and destructive, but full legalization (as in how alcohol is treated) of illegal drugs would also be bad policy.

    Alcohol isn't legalized because it is abstractly "good policy" in some ivory tower sense, it is legalized because Prohibition manifestly failed, and legalization, taxation, and devoting some of the tax revenue to addressing the harms of use is the only mechanism that actually works to mitigate rather than exacerbate the harms of use of addictive substances.

    The current War on Drugs has taken longer to reach the same realization because the US's post-WWII superpower status and national security state made it politically tolerable to ratchet up domestic law enforcement using tools that would never been acceptable previously, and made it possible to wage a global war (in the literal, military sense) against traffickers and tie anti-drug policies into major international financial assistance programs, giving the new prohibition greater extremes to which it could be driven before finally admitting that it was all in the wrong direction.

    But even that is reaching its limits, domestically and internationally.

  • linda johnson on March 23, 2013 5:48 AM: