Alternatives to the War on Drugs

As much as the so called War on Drugs has been a massive failure, legalization experiments haven’t been the salvation they were advertised to be. I have deeply mixed feelings on this whole thing, stemming from my libertarian instincts. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a government regulating what you can and can’t do with your own body. But I also understand that addiction quickly snowballs into massive societal problems.

Femke Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam, has been on a campaign to decriminalize even more drugs, including cocaine. For example, her recent op-ed in The Guardian, interview in Dutch media about cocaine (in English), a more detailed account also in English.

This is all very curious as the Netherlands as a whole is slowly stepping back from the whole coffee shop” experiment and steadily reducing the number of coffee shops in the country. The touristy ones in central Amsterdam are bright and cheerful sorts of places, but outside of the tourist areas they can be pretty grim. They’re a NIMBY nightmare attracting a certain crowd, crime, etc.

Looking more broadly, Portugal’s decriminalization experiment seems like a mixed bag. Quoting from the Washington Post:

But in the first substantial way since decriminalization passed, some Portuguese voices are now calling for a rethink of a policy that was long a proud point of national consensus. Urban visibility of the drug problem, police say, is at its worst point in decades and the state-funded nongovernmental organizations that have largely taken over responding to the people with addiction seem less concerned with treatment than affirming that lifetime drug use should be seen as a human right.

Overdose rates have hit 12-year highs and almost doubled in Lisbon from 2019 to 2023. Sewage samples in Lisbon show cocaine and ketamine detection is now among the highest in Europe, with elevated weekend rates suggesting party-heavy usage. In Porto, the collection of drug-related debris from city streets surged 24 percent between 2021 and 2022, with this year on track to far outpace the last. Crime — including robbery in public spaces — spiked 14 percent from 2021 to 2022, a rise police blame partly on increased drug use.

When you first back off enforcement, there are not many people walking over the line that you’ve removed. And the public think it’s working really well,” said Keith Humphreys, former senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. Then word gets out that there’s an open market, limits to penalties, and you start drawing in more drug users. Then you’ve got a more stable drug culture, and, frankly, it doesn’t look as good anymore.”

Far from the almost utopian claims that proponents of decriminalization make, it looks like the results are a mixed bag at best. Of course, people like Halsema argue that’s because the whole world needs to decriminalize or it won’t work. This seems deeply non-pragmatic. In principle, I can agree that a unified approach to drugs would be better, but local policies should have at least some demonstrable effect for the better.

The New Yorker just published an essay about how decriminalization in Oregon is going. Unfortunately, the issues seems too deeply tied to US partisan politics to get any sober analysis.

Many Oregonians saw Measure 110 as responsible for an increase in public disorder, drug use, and overdose deaths—which leaped from seven hundred and thirty-seven in 2021 to nine hundred and fifty-five in 2022.

But the next line we’re told that means it’s working!

In fact, a recent study by N.Y.U. found no evidence of an association” between decriminalization and fatal-overdose rates in Oregon and Washington. The drugs in circulation were unusually lethal—and given that being arrested can actually increase the risk of overdose, the authors wrote, Measure 110 might help to alleviate the problem. But if users couldn’t be picked up off the street, their activities became far more visible. People’s patience is wearing thin,” Haven Wheelock, who manages the harm-reduction program at Outside In, in Portland, said. I don’t want to downplay the moral injury of seeing such poverty and despair.”

There’s a lot of back in forth in there, but the short of it is that decriminalization hasn’t really delivered many positive results.

Stepping back, I’m more confused than ever. I want decriminalization to work. But I’m not sure there’s much evidence to back the lofty promises, and the more I read about it in articles like that New Yorker piece, the more if feels like the proponents of decriminalization are whiny ideologues on r/antiwork rather than pragmatic problem solvers.

There’s no need to rehash all that’s wrong with the War on Drugs, but there’s a lot of room between all out prohibition and the chaos of complete decriminalization. Quoting again from the Washington Post article:

Porto’s mayor and other critics, including neighborhood activist groups, are not calling for a wholesale repeal of decriminalization — but rather, a limited re-criminalization in urban areas and near schools and hospitals to address rising numbers of people misusing drugs.

I’m hoping a pragmatic, iterative approach like this becomes the norm instead of ideology driven absolutes.