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Winter 1998
Middle Ground
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Current policies, which largely reflect the drug-warrior approach, aim above all at reducing drug use. The favored tools are stricter controls, increased enforcement, harsher punishments and school-based and mass-media efforts to stigmatize the use of illicit drugs. Treatment is very much an afterthought.

At least three-quarters of the roughly $40 billion now spent by governments at all levels on the control of illicit drug abuse now goes into enforcement; the size of that effort and the number of persons incarcerated for drug-law violations have grown approximately tenfold during the past 20 years. Yet hard-drug prices, the clearest measure of enforcement effectiveness, are currently near their all-time lows.

By contrast, critics of current policies focus not on use reduction but "harm reduction" -- that is, making the consumption of illicit drugs less harmful to those who consume them and to non-users. The most widely debated, though not even nearly the most important, example is needle exchange, which aims to reduce the transmission of HIV and other pathogens from needle-sharing among drug injectors. Some advocates of harm reduction also assert that the legalization of drug use and distribution would decrease addicts' need to steal to finance their habits and the violence associated with the drug trade.

What all this ignores is that the total damage associated with drug use depends not only on its harmfulness but also on its extent. Legal drugs would indeed do less harm to each user, but there would be many more users. Harm-reduction measures short of legalization also need to be scrutinized for their risks of increasing the extent of drug use, much greater in some cases than in others. (Needle exchange, for example, is low-risk, but also in most circumstances low-gain.)

The goal of drug policy ought to be to minimize the aggregate damage created by drug-taking, drug trafficking and the enforcement effort. That is, we ought to judge drug-control efforts as we judge other public policies: by their results in producing benefits or avoiding harms to individuals or institutions.

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