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Discontinuous change and the war on drugs.

Although many people view the war on drugs as a failure, the conventional wisdom is that change--if and when it comes--will be slight and gradual. The reasoning behind this view stresses the wide array of political, legal, medical, religious, educational, economic, and other forces allied against change; the many, often powerful institutions and individuals with a stake in drug prohibition; and the apparent widespread public support for and long history of punitive policies. In brief, the argument goes, because drug prohibition is so firmly entrenched, and because the forces arrayed against change continue to be formidable, the most that can be hoped for is a gradual chipping way at the status quo.

The argument for gradual change is based upon the implicit assumption that there is only one kind of change--continuous change. A metaphor for gradual, continous change would be that of grains of sand being added one at a time so that an ant hill eventually becomes a mountain. While the mountain may look qualitatively different from the ant hill, the process of achieving it was a gradual, quantitative one. In the case of drug-policy reform, the assumption that change must be gradual would correspond to convincing one citizen or one legislator at a time, or to amending a particular law so as to weaken it a bit, or otherwise to making minor changes which might--over an extended period--eventually accumulate enough to constitute a qualitative improvement.

There is, however, another kind of change--discontinuous change--and I would argue that it provides a more likely model for the way in which real, qualitative drug-policy reform will come. A metaphor for discontinuous change would be the changing visual patterns in a kaleidoscope. As one gradually rotates a kaleidoscope, the pattern produced by light reflecting off the bits of colored glass remains the same. Eventually, however, a threshold is reached, and any further rotation leads to an unpredictable reorganization of the shards and a qualitatively different visual pattern. No pattern ever merges gradually into its successor.

Discontinuous change takes place in complex systems, where multiple forces interact in complicated ways over time so that minor random events may be swept up by multiple feedback mechanisms and rapidly magnified and transformed in startling ways. In chaos theory, for example, this is referred to as "sensitivity to initial conditions," or more popularly as "the butterfly effect." (The meteorological notion is that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly on one continent can be picked up by the swirling forces of nature and transformed into a hurricane on another.)

Thinking in terms of discontinuous change has already become widespread in the physical and biological sciences and is beginning to take hold in the social and behavioral sciences as well. For example, Darwin's original theory of evolution--involving gradual speciation over great expanses of time--has been modified to the new view of punctuated equilibria. This view is that new species evolve rapidly (in geological terms) and then remain stable for much longer periods of time. These periods of rapid growth, or "punctuations" (for example, following the rapid extinction of the dinosaurs, which probably occurred after a comet struck the earth), constitute a kind of discontinuous change that is similar to the new view of the evolution of science itself. Instead of seeing the development of science as a gradual process in which one bit of knowledge is piled on another, it is now thought that long periods of "normal science" are periodically punctuated by "revolutions" in which basic assumptive paradigms are overthrown and replaced by new ones--which then usher in their own ear of "normal science." To take a final example from anthropology, "rubbish theory" studies the way in which everyday objects--from thimbles to houses--gradually lose their value until they become worthless ("rubbish") for an extended period of time. Then, unexpectedly, some of them take on great and increasing value as antiques.

In all these cases--from chaos theory to evolution to the history of science to the value of everyday objects--an understanding of dynamic processes in complex systems has challenged traditional views of gradual change and shown the usefuleness of models of discontinuous change.

A key element to consider in understnading discontinuous change is the rapid and unpredictable nature of what takes place during the punctuation, or discontinuity, between the old steady-state of a system and the new one. During long periods of continuity, perturbations and disruptions in the system get damped down by homeostatic feedback; as the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." However, during a period of discontinuous change, anything can happen. Minor, random, and accidental events can get magnified, reacted to, and unexpectedly set off escalated processes of change in unpredicted directions.

Consider the example of the Cold War. For four decades, nothing changed; and then, as if the kaleidoscope had been rotated that extra millimeter, Soviet communism collapsed and world politics went from depressingly boring to unpredictably turbulent. Thirty years ago, if one had asked what a map of Eurasia would look like a decade or two later, the answer would have been, "The same." Today, that question would have to be answered, "Who knows?"

The important point to understand is that world politics is in a punctuation right now, and anything can happen. George Bush's mistake in proclaiming a "new world order" had to do with his not considering the element of time. He recognized that there had been a previous world order and that it would be succeeded by another one, but he did not appreciate the necessary period of unpredictability in between. Some have aptly dubbed the current state of affairs the new world disorder, but they, too, err in viewing it as the successor pattern to the previous one rather than as a transition period between the old pattern and the unpredictable new one that will eventually emerge.

One other point to remember about discontinuous change is the notion of threshold conditions beyond which homeostatic mechanisms are overcome and change takes place. These conditions constitute the limit beyond which the kaleidoscope pattern shifts, or the snowball of change starts rolling downhill and becomes an avalanche. The arms race of the Cold War is an example of what is known in systems theory as a symmetrical escalation. This is a tit-for-tat series of "I'll see you and raise you one," or "anything you can do I can do better." While it had appeared that there was no end to the amount of nuclear overkill the two superpowers were ready to build, or to the amount of treasure they would squander on it, a limit was in fact reached. Beyond this limit, the process of armament was reversed, and that of disarmament began to accelerate. (It is interesting to note how the breakup of the Soviet Union has created unexpected problems for the unexpected process of disarmament. Because the Ukraine is now a separate state, the armaments that were built up in a two-party escalation have to be undone in a three-party deescalation. This is just another example of the unpredictability introduced during a period of discontinuous change.)

In the area of drugs and drug policy, it is clear that we are dealing with a complex socio-politico-economic system involving many people and institutions and huge amounts of money--one which pervades American society and has extensive linkages throughout the world. Furthermore, drugs that are now illegal were in fact legal during the last century; so there is nothing immutable about the current state of affairs. Hence, it is reasonable to argue that drug policy exists in the kind of system where discontinuous change occurs, and that the decades of stability are more reflective of homeostatic processes within the system than of any inherent unchangeableness in drug policy.

For these reasons, I would argue that, when change does come to drug policy, it is likely to be sudden and dramatic. In addition, such change is likely to include a chaotic period during which it will be all but impossible to predict the new pattern into which drug policy (and drug use) will settle. During this period, unimportant, random, or otherwise unforeseen events could well nudge policy into unexpected directions, following which an acceleration of change in the new direction could develop rapidly. Those formulating policy during this turbulence will need to engage in an ongoing process of hypothesis-testing and self-correction, as rapidly changing conditions and unpredicted consequences lead to frequent midcourse corrections.

The plausibility of this scenario, and the desirability of formulating the best alternative to our current failed policy, means that that the following four issues deserve serious consideration: What strategies are likely to provoke discontinuous change in drug policy? What can be done to increase the likelihood of the formulation of effective policy during the turbulent "punctuation" of discontinuous change? Are there any special opportunities that will arise or unique issues that are likely to need attention during the process of discontinuous change? And, finally, are any special kinds of planning suggested by a model of discontinuous change which might not otherwise be considered?

Like the arms race, the war on drugs has involved a version of symmetrical escalation between the purveyors of illegal drugs and the drug warriors. When the police get more firepower, the drug lords escalate their armaments. Greater ingenuity in tracking illegal funds is met by improved methods of hiding them. Stiffer sentences for adult drug dealers lead to the recruitment of children who are not subject to those penalties. Successful drug busts lead both to the creation of even more sources of supply and to the production of drugs in more concentrated forms (so that more of the illegal ingredient can be packed into less volume).

As with the arms race, the devastating effects of this symmetrical escalation are becoming increasingly obvious to everyone except the escalators: more participants and bystanders killed in shootouts; more drug money with its insidious effects on commerce and politics; more children lured into a life of crime and drugs; and more people abusing higher doses of drugs. (The disastrous effects of this escalation serve as a warning of the dangers of militarizing the drug war. It is one thing for drug money to corrupt a police force; the peril of corrupting armies which have nuclear weapons need not be spelled out.)

The real question is how bad things have to get before the symmetrical escalation passes a critical threshold and leads to discontinuous change. An honest answer is, "Only time will tell." Nevertheless, it is reasonable to speculate that we are quite near that point. Little was achieved in reducing either supply or demand by the greatly increased drug-war expenditures of the Bush administration, and with national policy focused on reducing the deficit, rethinking drug policy offers the possibility of substantial savings. We will never know if the Reagan escalation in military expenditures (including "Star Wars") provoked Gorbachev to reverse the arms race and move toward disarmament, or whether he would have done so anyway. Still, the likelihood that the federal government will have to reduce expenditures on the drug war suggests that a similar threshold will soon be reached. The logic seems inescapable--if "more" did not produce desired results, then "less" surely won't. And if huge expenditures are being poured into an acknowledged losing proposition, then a major change in policy would seem to be inevitable.

If we are approaching the threshold where discontinuous change is possible, then what are some of the policies that might provoke it? In general, the most reasonable strategy would be to introduce a small change that will snowball. This is in contradistinction to a small change that will accumulate with other small changes to produce gradual or "first-order" change. Some theorists refer to the kind of small change which provokes systemic reorganization--or secondorder change--as the "difference that makes a difference." To some extent, trial and error is necessary: depending on whether or not the change snowballs, it can be viewed with hindsight as a difference that did or did not make a difference. In general, though, a small change in the rules of the game is more likely to lead to systemic reorganization than is a small change in the application of the rules.

An additional benefit of starting with a small change is that it could reassure public fears of the unknown. Assuming that reformers are correct that crime will diminish and a drug plague won't materialize--because the public has more common sense than drug warriors credit it with--further change could be undertaken with greater confidence. Naturally, if the drug warriors' worst fears should be realized, the policy could be reversed. On the other hand, they might discover to their amazement that, for example, legalizing marijuana would lead to a shift away from the more dangerous use of alcohol, with a corresponding drop over time in deaths from alcohol-related diseases. Drug reformers would expect to see an initial increase in experimentation out of curiosity about previously forbidden fruit--as occurred with the legalization of pornography in Scandinavia--but would anticipate that, as in Scandinavia, it would drop off quickly with the knowledge of continuing availability. Meanwhile, a ban on advertising could prevent the artificial stimulation of demand. A similar ban on advertising of tobacco and alcohol--the two most dangerous drugs--could also prove quite beneficial, as could an end to government support for growing tobacco. In general, a public-health strategy aimed at legalizing drugs (perhaps only in relatively low dosages for at least some of them) so as to avoid the disastrous effects of the war on drugs, while discouraging drug use and offering treatment for abusers (paid for by drug taxes), seems the most reasonble course of action. Exactly what form such a plan might take, and what process might be needed to achieve it, is still subject to the vagaries of discontinuous change.

I will give two examples of policies which, though starting small, might well snowball. (I am sure that drug-policy experts can dream up many others if they distinguish between continuous and discontinuous change when they do their brainstorming.) One such policy would be to invoke federalism, reduce the role of the federal government in drug enforcement, and let the states be laboratories for drug policy. "The war on drugs has failed," the argument would go, "so let the states try 50 different approaches, and we can adopt what works." Then, if even one state makes a significant move in the direction of legalization, the hoped-for drop in violent crime and criminal-justice expenses could lead to a spread of the strategy. (One unknown about this approach is that such a state could become a magnet for drug activity. This would doubtless produce many unanticipated positive and negative effects, possibly leading nearby states to imitate or retailate against their neighbor's new policy. But that is just the point: discontinuous change produces unpredictable results, and continual responsiveness to changing conditions would be essential during the period of systemic reorganization.)

Another policy would be to legalize marijuana. "We can no longer afford the war on drugs," it could be asserted. "We'll have to limit ourselves to a war on hard drugs." A scaled-down drug war could then be financed--along with drug treatment and abuse prevention programs--in significant measure through taxes on marijuana. Once again, the diminution in violent crime and lack of the feared disastrous increase in drug abuse, along with the economic savings over current policy, could lead to further moves away from the current punitive direction.

If discontinuous change does occur, then rapidly changing conditions--possibly differing among the 50 states, and interacting with one another in complex and unpredictable ways--could lead to urgent demands for new laws. Such demands might well be made with great emotional intensity amidst the uncertainty of systemic reorganization. Such circumstances are hardly a suitable crucible in which to forge wise policy. For this reason, it would be desirable to make use of the time we have now to consider in detail a wide array of policy options. In this way, proposals could promptly be taken off the shelf if suddenly needed during a period of rapid change. Fortunately, such work is already underway at the Drug Policy Foundation and by the Princeton Working Group on the Future of Drug Use and Alternatives to Drug Prohibition. Still, the greater the number of proposals that can be accumulated and studied now, the more likely it is that some of them can be put to good use when they are needed.

Assuming that discontinuous change does occur, and that some kind of drug legalization does come about over a relatively brief period of time, there are a number of consequences which appear likely, and that would present unique opportunities during the chaotic period of change. Legalization would doubtless create disarray in the black market for drugs, and this would offer an unprecedented opportunity for attacking organized crime and seizing many billions of dollars of assets.

Historians might provide useful insights by looking more intensively at the period of discontinuous change immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, so that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. And economists could suggest ways to prevent drug fortunes from escaping detection as the market collapses. Perhaps we can prevent illegal drug kingpins from becoming legal drug moguls the way bootleggers became distillers after Prohibition. It makes more sense to take advantage of their scramble to protect their collapsing empires as an opportunity to gain evidence, punish them for their violent and other prosecutable crimes, and confiscate their assets. (This would provide a refreshing contrast to the "zero tolerance" policy of confiscating the assets of ordinary citizens who, though upstanding members of the community, experiment with illegal drugs or use them recreationally. Another problem with "zero tolerance" and its slogan of "just say no" is that it falsely equates all drug use with abuse. In fact, there is a continuum of drug use, and use by any individual can vary quite widely over time. More reasonable slogans are "moderation in all things," "be careful," "soyez sage," and "caveat emptor.")

The obvious course of action following legalization would be to immediately reap the benefits by cutting law-enforcement expenditures. However, recognizing the importance of time to understanding discontinuous change could allow us to follow a less intuitive but more productive path. That is, we could delay or moderate those cuts for several years while shifting resources to attack the weakened structure of organized crime. (For example, we could time a change in the physical appearance of our currency to coincide with the legalization of drugs. This change would force illegal cash out of hiding in order to be traded for new bills by the deadline.) If the war on drugs built up organized crime by creating a huge black market, it is only reasonable to make of legalization to undo as much of the damage as possible.

Meanwhile, many other kinds of planning could be useful in cushioning the end of the war on drugs. The emptying out of prison cells would create unemployment among both prisoners and jailers--and ultimately throughout law enforcement--while the collapse of the black market in drugs would lead to similar unemployment in the parallel economy. The drop in violent crime should also hurt the crime-prevention industry, from burglar alarms to guns to guards and guard dogs. On the other hand, all kinds of economic activity which were deterred by the fear of crime should increase.

The range of issues addressed here merely scratches the surface of those meriting attention, but it does suggest the different kind of thinking about drug policy and strategies for action which arise from conceptualizing the field in terms of discontinuous change. Thinking about these issues now will allow us to better navigate the whitewaters of change when they come.
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Author:Fish, Jefferson
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:3300
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