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Winter 1998
Middle Ground
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Between the extremist "drug warriors" and "legalizers" lies a third way of thinking about drug policy in America

By Mark A.R. Kleiman
Illustrations by Gary Tanhauser

Fanaticism," says Santayana, "consists of redoubling your efforts when you have lost sight of your aim." An old Alcoholics Anonymous adage defines insanity as "continuing to do the same thing and expecting to get a different result." Between them, these two aphorisms define the condition of U.S. drug policy and the public debate about it. Our current policies, largely misconceived, are doing much more harm than they should and much less good than they might.

Part of the problem is simply the complexity of the phenomena we are trying to manage. The heterogeneity of drugs and drug users defies simple categorization. As a result, the serious policy questions refuse to line up along the kind of easily comprehended polarity that fits two-party politics and point/counterpoint journalism.

Yet the discussion of drug policy remains unproductively polarized between the "drug warriors," who blame "drugs" for all our social ills and advocate stricter controls and harsher punishments, and the "legalizers," who blame drug prohibition instead and favor more relaxed controls. As a result, a wide variety of sensible policy modifications that fail to fit the ideological predilections of either extreme simply do not get discussed.

The only way to close the gap between what we know how to do and what we are actually doing is to develop a third way of thinking about drug policy. Using only existing knowledge and resources, the nation's drug problem could be much smaller five years from now than it is today. Repairing our broken policies will require a clearer vision of what the drug problem is and more moderate expectations about what drug-control policies can actually accomplish.

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