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Winter 1998
Middle Ground
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By my calculations, a national program of coerced abstinence could reduce the quantity of cocaine bought and sold in this country by about 40 percent. The cost, roughly $7 billion per year, would be more than covered by reduced incarceration, both for the offenders under coerced-abstinence supervision and for the drug dealers they would no longer be keeping in business.

But the polarization of the current drug debate between stereotyped "drug warrior" and "legalizer" positions creates the false impression that "ending prohibition" is the only alternative to an unrestricted "war on drugs," effectively barring "third way" options such as coerced abstinence from serious consideration. In this climate, every idea, research finding or proposal put forth is scrutinized to determine which agenda it advances. As a result, questions that ought to be addressed on technical and practical grounds -- such as methadone treatment -- are instead debated as matters of ideological conviction.

Both drugs and drug policies cause harm. Any policy, including inaction, does harm as well as good. Once that is acknowledged, we can begin the hard work of shaping policies that do more good than harm. That work will demand reasoned analysis, scientific respect for evidence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes, rather than denying them. Whether we can summon the political will for that task remains an open question.

Mark A.R. Kleiman, a policy analyst, is professor of policy studies in the School of Public Policy and Social Welfare. He is the author of Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results and the editor of the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin.

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