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Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us
it is morally wrong to produce and sell drugs, and that those who do so despite laws prohibiting this activity ought to be punished. In short, many people believe not only that enforcement of drug laws helps to solve the problem of drug use, but also that enforcement advances the cause of justice. Of course, a countervailing libertarian view argues that government enforcement of drug laws intrudes on individual freedoms and hence should be minimized to the extent possible.
For a committee of the National Research Council, the fact that some of the enthusiasm for enforcement derives from a moral view of what is right and wrong, as well as from a practical, empirical claim that such policies will succeed in controlling the drug problem creates a difficulty. Scientists know how to measure things and how to reach conclusions about whether a particular intervention works to solve a particular problem or achieve a specified goal. With respect to the question of what sorts of acts are good or bad, and what constitutes a good versus a bad effect, scientists have no special expertise to offer. In a democratic society, that is a job for all citizens, and their representatives, not for scientists alone. What scientists can do is to help citizens judge whether the practical reasoning that links drug enforcement and supply-reduction efforts to the severity of the drug problem is sound, and what the available empirical evidence seems to say about the efficacy of these efforts. That is what we aim to do in this chapter and the next.
We note, however, that findings of either efficacy or inefficacy cannot determine whether the nation should enhance, reduce, or abandon efforts to reduce drug supply and to enforce drug laws. Such efforts could be supported even if ineffective if they were considered a just response to people who produce or sell drugs. And they could be abandoned even if considered effective if they came to be regarded as sufficiently unjust. The worst of all worlds would be one in which the nation supported drug enforcement efforts that were both ineffective and unjust. The best of all worlds would be one in which the policies used were both just and effective. The point is that supply-reduction and drug law enforcement efforts have to be evaluated in terms of their justice as well as their practical effect. It is important to think about whether it is bad to produce and sell prohibited drugs as well as whether it is effective in discouraging people from doing so by threatening to punish them. It is important to think about whether the laws that are enforced are fair, and whether they can be enforced fairly as well as whether the laws can help protect children from having early experiences with drug use that bode poorly for their future. In this discussion, we on occasion note issues of justice as well as efficacy, but it is important to emphasize that the committee’s expertise