NYU Law Forum panelists examine alternatives to outlawing drugs

The February 3 NYU Law Forum brought together a group of experts, mostly from organizations seeking alternatives to the U.S.'s current "war on drugs" method, to discuss potential models for drug decriminalization. Introducing the panel, Vice Dean Barry Friedman said that the topic was inspired by a previous Forum featuring Professor Paul Butler of the George Washington University Law School, whose recommendation that conscientious lawyers not become prosecutors was based partly on the problems Butler saw in the war on drugs.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, argued that the strict prohibition of drugs under a punitive model caused many problems. In the 1990s he assembled a group of experts to seek a middle ground between complete prohibition and an unfettered market. They ultimately settled on a right-of-access model in which citizens could order drugs from a central government-controlled entity and receive them in the mail, which Nadelmann said would help clear up the current black market and its attendant crime problems while also negating the quality-control dangers of unregulated drug manufacturing.

Deborah Small, founder and executive director of Break the Chains, an organization that addresses the effect of punitive drug policies on communities of color, said that the war on drugs was much less about narcotics than about social and economic control of the less powerful. She referred to the drug war's "fundamental assumption that what we're fighting is a moral evil, and that therefore there can be no compromise." The actual substances used to make drugs, Small said, are worth little: "It is our policies that have turned weeds into something that's worth more than their weight in gold." The majority of drug users, she said, are not so much people who have problematic relationships with narcotics as they are "people whose principal problem is that they lead terrible lives.... The punitive approach to drugs only re-entrenches the things that cause addiction."

The flawed war on drugs is due "partly to the poverty of our political discourse," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project. "We don't know how to talk about things outside of these false dichotomies," such as a prohibition approach to drugs versus completely unregulated access. Many members of Congress, he said, admit privately that the anti-drug war isn't working, but won't say so publicly for fear of political fallout. However, he added, there is a gradual trend toward more political honesty about the issue.

Acknowledging that he was not an expert on drug policy, Professor Oren Bar-Gill looked at the problem through the lens of behavioral economics, and laid out what he saw as some fundamental questions to ask: What is our objective? What externalities arise from drug use, and what internalities affect the user? How do we set drug prices if they are sold legally under the government's control?

"There is no way to fully anticipate what a fairly radical legalization model would look like," Nadelmann said, but he added that examining the U.S.'s previous experiences with regulating substances like alcohol and cigarettes, as well as the experiences other countries have had with decriminalization, would be instructive.

Posted on February 5, 2010

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