19 Steps to a Better Drug Policy

Mark Kleiman outlines a “Better drug policy in nineteen easy steps” on his blog and fleshes them out considerably in the cover story of this month’s The National Interest. He promises “something … to offend almost everybody.”

His focus on alcohol abuse as part and parcel of the drug problem is spot-on:

And alcohol is a drug, one that ranks high along most dimensions of risk. Among intoxicants (that is, excluding caffeine and nicotine), alcohol abuse accounts for more than three-quarters of total substance abuse in the United States, and for more death, illness, crime, violence and arrests than all illicit drugs combined. A drug abuse control policy that ignores alcohol is as defective as a naval policy that ignores the Pacific.

Given how ineffective Prohibition was in the case of booze–and how universally that is acknowledged–it’s interesting that it remains the tool of choice decades later for illicit narcotics.

All illicit markets are bad; just how bad depends on the size of the market, the flagrancy of the distribution mechanism, and the social mix of users and dealers. At relatively low cost, regulation and prohibition can be effective in preventing the emergence of new problem drug markets, and sometimes in keeping drugs already entrenched in some areas from extending their geographic reach. But once a drug has an established mass market, more enforcement cannot greatly shrink the problem; existing customers will seek out new suppliers, and imprisoned dealers, seized drugs and even dismantled organizations are replaced. Moreover, the effectiveness of enforcement tends to fall over time as the illicit industries learn to adapt. We have 15 times as many drug dealers in prison today as we had in 1980, yet the prices of cocaine and heroin have fallen by more than 80 percent.

Nor, interestingly, is medicalization a panacea:

Drug-use prevention efforts are very cost-effective because they’re very cheap. But they aren’t very effective; even the best programs, combining school-based and community-based efforts, reduce the rate of initiation by no more than a quarter, with no assurance that spending more would produce bigger effects.

His solutions for addressing the problem are, as promised, controversial. From my decidedly non-expert perspective, at least, they make sense at least as a starting point for discussion. They’re lengthy and detailed enough to defy excerpting, so I’ll leave it to the reader to click the link and ready.

This proposal, though, will draw fire from the libertarians most likely to buy off on the rest of Kleiman’s policy suggestions:

Raise the tax on alcohol, especially beer. The average excise tax (Federal plus state) on a can of beer is about a dime. The average damage done by that can of beer to people other than its drinker is closer to a dollar. Those costs consist mostly of crimes, accidents and the health care costs redistributed through insurance—and the one-dollar figure doesn’t count the costs to the families and friends of drinkers.

Of course, not all drinks are created equal; a dollar per can would be too high a tax on the great majority of drinkers whose drinking does no harm, and too low on the dangerous minority. But in the words of an old Chivas Regal advertisement, “If the extra money matters to you, you’re drinking too much.” (Note that the optimal tax level would fall if we denied alcohol to bad drunks.)

Raising taxes is also among the best ways to reduce heavy drinking by teenagers, for whom price is often a major consideration.

I don’t drink canned beer. But I buy pretty decent bottled beer in half-case quantities, generally on sale somewhere around $15 per 12. A tax of $1 a bottle would therefore nearly double the price of the beer I drink and would more than double the cost of Miller Lite, Budweiser, and the like. I can’t imagine the industry would stand for that.

I wonder, too, if doing this wouldn’t have unintended consequences. In my own case, I’d likely increase the ratio of really high end beers in my refrigerator (I’m partial to Beligians). One suspects, though, that those drinking beer for the high rather than the flavor would instead opt to redirect their investment into hard liquor or marijuana.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    I wonder if we could find some legally sound way to raise the price on the domestic swill that the kids are guzzling, as opposed to the stuff that JJ presumably keeps on hand?

    I totally didn’t get why MARK wanted to ditch the minimum drinking age, but OTOH, the “drinking license” seems like sheer genius, at least until someone explains otherwise to me.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I like the drinking license concept, too.

    As to the drinking age, Mark admits he’s nearly alone on this among the experts. Here’s his rationale:

    There is good evidence that age restrictions reduce underage alcohol abuse and drunk driving. That is true even taking into account the inducement for kids to drink created by making drinking a badge of adulthood and the difficulty of teaching responsible drinking practices to teenagers who are forbidden to drink at all.

    But against the benefits we must weigh the costs of making the vast majority of adolescents into lawbreakers. Nearly nine high-school seniors in ten report drinking. Criminalizing statistically normal behavior trivializes lawbreaking by enacting a law that almost everyone breaks, and breaks without apparent harm: Most teenage drinkers, like most adult drinkers, don’t have a drinking problem. The current drinking age has also normalized the acquisition and use of false identification documents, which seems like a bad idea in the age of terror.

    One thing I’d say about the drinking age is that the Europeans seem to have no qualms about young kids drinking alcohol in very small amounts. In my own experience, having a (small) glass of wine with the parents on occasion even at a very young age meant that I never viewed it as a taboo and felt the need to guzzle large quantities of it in secrecy later. Then again, I may just lack the alcoholism gene.

  3. M. Murcek says:

    If the incentive to make home brew or run a still shot skywards, how likely would it be that the Treasury could field the necessary number of agents to put a dent in it? After all, it worked so well last time, when the population was so much smaller…

  4. Steven Plunk says:

    My understanding is cocaine and heroine have fallen out of favor being replaced by meth. That would account for the fall in price, a new product.

    This attack on alcohol seems misguided. It is and has been a part of our culture for thousands of years. Not just a substance to get high on it has blended into some of most cherished rituals. Having the government (big brother) step in to shield us from ourselves will not sit well with citizens let alone the industry.

    Raising the tax to the level proposed would become a form of prohibition. Taxing it into unaffordability would again anger citizens, especially the poor who would be hit disproportionately. Other unintended consequences of this quasi-prohibition could be a turning to other drugs, black markets, increased theft of the now more valuable commodity.

    I especially dislike Kleiman’s statement “The average damage done by that can of beer…”. Since when do cans of beer do damage? And when taxed will less damage occur or will different damage occur? A general tax on stupid people would do more good.

    People like Kleiman need to understand we will never rid the world of bad things happening. Just putting a new tax in place to change moral attitudes is really not the place of a government established under the consent of those governed. He has lost sight of personal liberty in a quest for societal perfection.

  5. Mark says:

    Regarding the “drinking license” – how would this work? At the age of 21 I would assume that one would have to go to some government agency to get their license if they wanted to drink – like going to get a hunting or fishing license. Fine. Let’s assume that this is the system we live with:

    Well, one does not have to go to a bar to buy alcohol. Rather, you are going to see the same things happen with this system that under-age drinkers currently do – get others to buy their booze for them, false ID’s (or false drinking licenses), etc. If someone wants a drink bad enough he is going to find a way to get one, regardless of the legality of it.

    At least with the system we have now, a drunk gets his license pulled and it gets placed on their record. That punishment has real-life consequences, while getting a mythical drinking license taken away really does not do much.

  6. James Joyner says:


    Kleiman acknowledges the difficulty:

    Obviously, such a ban could not be perfectly enforced. But reducing the frequency and flagrancy of drinking behavior by problem drunks somewhat is far better than not reducing it at all. A ban on drinking by bad drinkers (unlike the current ban on drinking by those under 21) would have an obvious moral basis. Evading it, for example by buying liquor for someone on the “Do Not Drink” list, would be clearly wrong and worth punishing. Moreover, offenders would not easily be able to drink in bars, restaurants or other public places, which means they would be less likely to drink and then drive or cause public disturbances.

    What he’s aiming at is minimizing the consequences of intoxication rather than trying to control substances that can be used responsibly.

  7. Anderson says:

    This attack on alcohol seems misguided. It is and has been a part of our culture for thousands of years.

    Yes, but the combination with machines that propel us at 50 mph is much more recent.

  8. I’m having a little trouble following the logic.

    1. Alcohol accounts for more than 3/4 the total substance abuse.

    2. Alcohol is the drug most readily available legally (acknowledging the drinking age).

    3. Therefore we should make other currently illegal drugs legal.

    I can understand the “Prohibition leads to criminal exploitation of the market” as an argument for legalizing a drug. But if an already legalized drug (Alcohol) is causing most of the substance abuse, wouldn’t that argue that legalization might cause much more severe substance abuse. You can certainly do yourself harm with alcohol, but is it even in the same category as crack, speed, pcp, etc on being addictive and abusing your system?

  9. James Joyner says:

    You can certainly do yourself harm with alcohol, but is it even in the same category as crack, speed, pcp, etc on being addictive and abusing your system?

    I’m not sure that’s true. Kleiman’s point, though, seems to be that focusing on self-harm is counterproductive so we should worry about the negative externalities.

    Further, I’m not sure the evidence shows that making crack, etc. illegal has diminished its use or abuse.

  10. just me says:

    I am not in favor of eliminating the drinking age, but I would like to see it lowered to 18-I think 21 is rediculous. I also think prohibiting minors from drinking alcohol under the supervision of their parents is stupid kind of stupid.

    In general I am not in favor of legalizing drugs-at least not the harder/scarier ones. I am in favor of decriminalizing possession and use, but I am not all that keen on meth labs in the neighborhood or meth being sold legally at the corner drug store. I think there is good reason to restrict the use of these, and I wonder if decriminalizing some of the other drugs may not lower demand for some of the scarier stuff.

    I also think whether drugs are decriminalized or legalized that employers should have some ability to fire and refuse to hire based on drug use.

  11. Anderson says:

    Kleiman has some good points in the article about why legalizing any drugs, even pot, is a bad idea. “Marketing,” for the one-word summary.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I like Mark’s proposals better than I do proposals for total legalization.

    I wonder if we could find some legally sound way to raise the price on the domestic swill that the kids are guzzling, as opposed to the stuff that JJ presumably keeps on hand?

    Sure. You can tax on a volume (per gallon) basis. It could also be possible to create a regressive tax with higher tax rates on lower cost items. Any attempt to do this will, no doubt, meet with screams about disadvantaging the poor.

    Given how ineffective Prohibition was in the case of booze—and how universally that is acknowledged—it’s interesting that it remains the tool of choice decades later for illicit narcotics.

    The arguments for alcohol and drugs like, say, heroin are somewhat different. There are millions, possibly billions, of people who consume alcohol without abusing it. Whether to abuse or not is completely beyond the control of the consumer of heroin. There are plenty of anecdotes about being hooked with the first use.

    I don’t know that I’d oppose any of Mark’s proposals. Some have, shall we say, technical problems. For example, while the laws on driving while intoxicated are generally accepted as applying to drugs other than alcohol as well as alcohol, I don’t know that tools for measuring level of intoxication in other drugs are quite as developed or non-invasive as breath-o-lyzers. I suspect that there would be civil liberties objections.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Raising excise taxes on alcohol would have much the same consequences as outright prohibition: incentivizing non-compliance.

  14. LJD says:

    The only ones who will be hurt by this are legal drinkers. Kids have money for CDs, play station games, etc. that are top dollar items. Whatever the price, they will pay it. It seems the proposal attempts to substitute for parenting, personal responsibility, and schools that are involved with the kids.

    On drugs, put very simply, the prohibition of cocaine has produced crack and meth. I’m not FOR any of them, but the alternative is certainly more damaging.

    They were talking about drug and alcohol testing for kids in school on the news this morning. What a great way to introduce them very early to the ways of Big Brother! It doesn’t take a test to notice of kids that are pie-eyed, stink of alcohol, have withdrawn fomr extra-curriculars, and are failing classes.