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What Every Libertarian Needs To Know About Two Books on the Drug War

Review of Mark A. R. Kleiman, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken, Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), xxi + 234 pgs., paperback, $16.95; and Jonathan P. Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A. R. Kleiman, Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xx + 266 pgs., paperback, $16.95.

These two books are part of a series by Oxford University Press called What Everyone Needs to Know. There are currently twenty-six books in this series. The books are written in a question-and-answer format. Obviously, with titles like Invasive Species, Pandemics, and Overfishing, not every book in the series is of interest to libertarians. But aside from Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, these two books on the drug war are the two titles that libertarians would be the most interested in.

The three common authors of these books are all academics at major universities. Beau Kilmer is co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. The marijuana book also includes an additional author, Christina Farber, for one chapter.

Drugs and Drug Policy contains 10 chapters with between 9 and 23 questions per chapter. The book also contains acknowledgments, an introduction, a conclusion on “what is to be done?” that is not in a question-and-answer format, an appendix on “how drugs work in the brain” with eight questions and answers, a bibliography, and an index. Each chapter concludes with recommendations for additional reading. There are no footnotes.

Drugs and Drug Policy “includes facts about drugs and drug-related behavior, pharmacology, prohibitions, regulations, and taxes, and how drug enforcement, drug prevention, and drug treatment work, along with their characteristic problems and limitations.”

Marijuana Legalization is divided into 2 parts with a total of 16 chapters with between 5 and 17 questions per chapter. The book contains acknowledgments, an introduction, a concluding chapter not in a question-and-answer format that gives the author’s opinions about marijuana legalization, a bibliography, and an index. Each chapter except the last concludes with recommendations for additional reading. There are no footnotes.

Marijuana Legalization is “not intended to persuade” the reader of any particular answers to questions about marijuana legalization and use. The authors “hope to provide both sets of advocates with material for an honest and logically coherent debate, and give people who have not yet made up their minds the raw material needed to develop informed opinions.”

Due to their question-and-answer format and skillful manner of explaining technical information, both books are extremely readable. And in spite of the brevity (in a good way) of the answers, the books are very thorough. Although I disagree with the authors’ conclusions, I recommend both books for the information they provide about drugs and the drug war.

What I want to focus on are those parts of these books that relate to drug legalization, drug decriminalization, and drug freedom.

In Drugs and Drug Policy, that would mainly be chapter 2, “Why Have Drug Laws?” and the conclusion, “What Is to Be Done?” In Marijuana Legalization, that would mainly be most of the chapters in part 2, “Legalization and Its Consequences,” and the concluding chapter, “What Do the Authors Think about Marijuana Legalization?”

In Drugs and Drug Policy, the authors point out that alcohol and tobacco “far exceed all the illicit drugs combined in the number of problem users and the resulting ill health and death.” But instead of pointing out the hypocrisy of the war on drugs and calling for full drug legalization, they recommend tripling the tax on alcohol because it would “improve the health and longevity of heavy drinkers” and “protect nondrinkers from drinking-related accidents and violence” and “banning additives and the pre-rolled cigarette” and “requiring that all smoking products be made from strains of tobacco that do not produce the tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNs) that create most of the cancer risk.” They reject John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

Why? Because “the case for protecting people from themselves – when it can be done at acceptable cost in terms of intrusive enforcement – seems attractive.” The authors are utilitarian nanny statists.

In their conclusion, the authors present three lists of policies: a “consensus” list of eleven items they “think might command widespread support,” a “pragmatist” list of six items “that could appeal to those prepared to think about drug abuse as a more or less straightforwardly practical problem,” and a “political-bridge-too-far” list of six changes “that make good sense to some drug-policy wonks, but that involve departures from current practice and more radical thinking than a prudent politician would endorse.”

Obviously, the third list is the most radical. But aside from calling for higher alcohol and cigarette taxes, the authors propose “allowing users to grow their own cannabis, or to form small consumer-owned cooperatives to grow it for them.” But “alas,” they say, “this approach would yield no tax revenue, which greatly reduces its political appeal.”

In Marijuana Legalization, the authors again point out how much more dangerous alcohol and tobacco are than marijuana. They even say:

If we were making laws for a planet whose population had never experienced either marijuana or alcohol, and we had to choose one of the two drugs to make available, there would be a strong case for choosing marijuana, which has lower organic toxicity, lower addictive risk, and a much weaker link with accidents and violence.

But since “that’s not the planet we inhabit,” and “alcohol has been an ingrained part of many cultures since the Neolithic revolution,” the authors reject treating marijuana as alcohol. “History matters. Custom matters. Practicality matters,” say the authors. I guess freedom doesn’t matter.

In the book’s final chapter, “What Do the Authors Think about Marijuana Legalization?,” drug freedom is not in their thoughts.

Angela Hawken says: “Existing policies suit me well.” But then she goes on to say that she thinks “it’s pretty clear that the cost-benefit balance is in favor of loosening the reins on marijuana.” She deems it “worthwhile to experiment with legalization” of marijuana, although she is “concerned with the exploitation of medical-marijuana laws.” Hawken also calls for raising taxes on alcohol and restricting its advertising.

Jonathan Caulkins says he would “vote against legalizing marijuana.” He prefers reforms and “middle path” options. He is worried about “the children of dependent users.” He claims to “generally agree with libertarian notions of letting people harm themselves if that’s what they choose,” but “only to a point.”

Mark Kleiman posits six options: current policy, decriminalization of use but not production and distribution, permission to use, grow, and give away marijuana, but not to grow or sell it professionally, legalization without commercialization that allows home production and small cooperatives, commercialization with high taxes and tight restrictions, and commercialization on the alcohol model. Missing, of course, is the drug freedom option. Kleiman’s first choice of what he would like to see happen is “permission for production and use through small not-for-profit cooperatives, with a ban on commerce.”

Beau Kilmer doesn’t “see much difference between alcohol and marijuana when adults use either in moderation.” He has “serious concerns about our current marijuana policies.” Although his “thoughts about marijuana policy continue to evolve,” if he were “approached for advice by a policymaker who represented a constituency seeking significant changes in their marijuana policies,” he advises the incorporation of a “sunset provision” to whatever is decided and rejects legalization because “it is risky to implement the most extreme alternative to prohibition.”

Both Drugs and Drug Policy and Marijuana Legalization suffer from the same problems.

There is little attention paid to the views of principled libertarians who argue for absolute drug freedom for freedom’s sake.

There are no references to important works such as Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market, by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, or The Economics of Prohibition, by economist Mark Thornton.

The authors take it for granted that the federal government should have a drug policy. Churches may want to have a drug policy. Families may want to have a drug policy. Businesses may want to have a drug policy. Sports teams may want to have a drug policy. Fraternal organizations may want to have a drug policy. But it is not the concern of the federal government to solve drug use problems or ensure that there aren’t any drug abuse problems.

The authors take it for granted that the federal government has the authority to ban substances it deems to be harmful, dangerous, or immoral. But as anyone who has read the Constitution even once can see, the federal government has no such authority.

The main problem, of course, is that real and absolute drug freedom isn’t even presented as a viable option.

So, as I said earlier, although I disagree with the authors’ conclusions, I recommend both books for the information they provide about drugs and the drug war.

And that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is what every libertarian needs to know about these two books on the drug war.

Originally posted on on February 6th, 2013.