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Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results.

Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results. Mark A.R. Kleiman. Basic, $26. The War on Drugs is forgotten, but not gone. The subject, having been taken for a joy-ride by politicians, is back in the sober hands of policy analysts and economists. Like the War on Poverty-our last example of a social gospel propagated in martial rhetoric -the drug war has revealed the flip side of our can-do positivism, turning from a crusade into an unsolvable problem. Thus the detailed logic of Kleiman's drug policy tome is not as remarkable or controversial as it would have been in the late eighties when the Republicans were playing the latest version of reefer madness and demon rum.

As the title suggests, Against Excess is a critique of both legalization and prohibition, of drug freaks and control freaks. For Kleiman, legalizers understate the problems of addiction, mistaking drugs for innocent, ordinary consumer goods; conversely, drug warriors wage an unrealistic, expensive, and doomed cultural holy war against certain kinds of intoxication. Like any good liberal (he uses feminine personal pronouns), Kleiman charts a middle course, exhaustively working through the permutations that result from the simple premise that "either we have the problems associated with drug abuse, or we have the problems associated with trying to control it-or we can choose some of each."

Kleiman convincingly shows that the current prohibition of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin is not cheap. He discusses the burden on the police, courts, and prisons; the inefficiencies, violent crime, and lost tax revenue of the black market; and the winnowing of both civil liberties and respect for the law. Kleiman codifies these social costs with a complexity rarely displayed in public discussion, favoring the wisdom one would expect of an effective policeman or treatment counselor to the rhetoric of a "DrugFree America."

The style is that of the economist or the game theorist, concerned with costs, side effects, and ironies. With sections called "Cross-subsidy and Risk-sharing," the book at times reads as though its subject could have just as easily been insurance reform. In order to focus on fairly narrow questions about controlling drug use, Kleiman limits himself as much as possible to measurable effects. Second-order questions, such as marijuana's supposed gateway effect or needle-sharing's relationship to AIDS, are well treated and footnoted. In a point typical of the hundreds he makes, he observes that in Washington, D.C., where cocaine dealing seems "to be limited not by a fear of the law, but by the lack of opportunities, as represented by customers," arresting sellers actually strengthens the occupation, by opening up slots for new and other dealers. Although the analysis is not specifically cultural, chemical, psychological, historical, or political, these facets are usually acknowledged, if only in the well-chosen epigrams that adorn each chapter.

Kleiman fudges, though, on questions of equality. He thinks poor inner-city neighborhoods deserve more police, judges, and prison cells, but he barely acknowledges the vicious fact that poor neighborhoods have been turned into open-air drug marketplaces and battlegrounds because of laws that protect the children of affluent families from having access to recreational drugs. Prohibition, in other words, reduces the availability of drugs for the middle class and wealthy, but it subjects the poor to the traffic and crime of the illegal trade.

Legalization would eliminate the high cost of unsuccessful prohibition, but it would also almost certainly lead to a dramatic increase in the instances of drug abuse. Kleiman's inclusion of alcohol and tobacco shows he's more serious about drug abuse than most of its loudest condemners: "Alcohol . . . accounts for more violent crime, and more drug abuse deaths, than does cocaine. Tobacco kills more Americans than all other drugs combined. Is it not strange to use those facts as arguments for treating other drugs as we now treat alcohol and tobacco?"

Kleiman is most critical of current policies towards marijuana and alcohol. Calling one a drug and not the other understates the damage done by drinking and might also cause people who have enjoyed marijuana to disregard warnings against more treacherous drugs. Kleiman would have both substances subjected to a roughly equal degree of control under a system of "grudging toleration" made up of "discriminatory taxation, a conditional and revocable license for personal use, vigorous enforcement of bans on sale to minors, limitations on marketing, negative advertising, and so on." Cocaine and heroin would stay outlawed, perhaps to be joined by cigarettes.

In emphasizing practical matters like education and treatment, Kleiman tries to render the sexy legalization question as moot as possible, but in the end, he succumbs to the temptation to propose his own radical plan. It's pretty hard to imagine a humane system of drinking and smoking licenses issued by the state and enforced by retailers. That this tentative, speculative judgment was reached in the midst of a book and career full of valuable analysis doesn't make Kleiman's proposal any less bizarre or disappointing. It's strange that such a scrupulously fair codification of what we do and don't know about the effectiveness and side effects of drug programs and laws would end with a proposal so, well, stoned.

If grudging tolerance is such a good idea for marijuana, why not the same for harder drugs? In addition to all the other benefits (tax revenue, treatment, etc.), one can imagine the large bite such a measure would take out of organized crime.

The master plan notwithstanding, Against Excess is a hopeful sign that drug issues can be discussed in practical rather than ideological terms. Clearly, tremendous waste would be eliminated if logic guided the drug war. Kleiman (with his Harvard and government credentials) would be a fine nominee under a Democratic administration for drug czar. But in his refusal to grapple with the broader cultural questions of self-control and independence, Kleiman misses what makes this issue, like abortion, a contest ground for Americans' incompatible understandings of freedom and responsibility.

-Nathaniel Wice
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Author:Wice, Nathaniel
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:987
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