Do we need more scientific basis for our drug policies?

The closing paragraph of a recent New York Times piece on rational choices made by drug addicts raises the question of whether scientists have furnished policy-makers with the broad range of information they would need to make good drug policy. The piece reports on studies by Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, in which Hart’s test-subjects, drug addicts, made rational choices between a delayed reward and an immediate drug-fix.

Dr. Hart did not appear to be surprised by the results. The Times quotes him saying that scientists have “played a less than honorable role in the war on drugs.” His concern is that “eighty to 90 percent of people are not negatively affected by drugs, but in the scientific literature nearly 100 percent of the reports are negative.” The “less than honorable role” at issue was that scientists have an economic incentive to keep telling Congress about a “terrible problem”, so that Congress will continue to fund programs to study and solve the problem.

The point Dr. Hart makes about gaming Congress bears examination. Congress’s spending power is not one that requires strict scrutiny. Congress would not need studies to prove the likelihood of addiction as long as there is a rational basis to support pursuing the policies it enacts. In this case, Hart’s indication that ten to 20 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine will become addicts, combined with the negative behavior associated with the addicts shows a significant population of addicts that are capable of the negative behaviors associated with the non-rational drug-addicts. Even without expecting 100 percent of drug users to wreak havoc on our civilization, a limited exposure to those who do exhibit the behavior published in the negative reports should justify enacting a policy that would study and help minimize the impact of drug-addiction.

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2 thoughts on “Do we need more scientific basis for our drug policies?

  1. Here’s a video interview of Dr. Hart from Reason that’s really good. While I think his proposal (decriminalization) doesn’t go far enough, it would definitely be a step in the right direction. Much like in the ’20s, Prohibition is a “cure” that’s much worse than the supposed disease.

  2. There’s a bit of discussion in the legal academic literature as to why drugs have been criminalized at all. Is it a link to violence? Is it just paternalism? There’s also been a more recent discussion as to whether the War on Drugs is responsible for the huge prison populations in the United States. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has perhaps the most well-known discussion of this.

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