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Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us
may encourage and reinforce it, depending on the social and developmental context. Some norms and expectations discouraging drug use (including alcohol and tobacco use) are formalized and “enforced” in social groups and organizational settings through various mechanisms of social discipline; sometimes such “private” sanctions are explicitly permitted and enforced by law (e.g., dismissals for using illegal drugs or alcohol on the job or for testing positive for illegal drugs).
A central point of dispute in the drug policy debate is the nature of the link between the drug laws and other forms of social control against drug use. On one side, defenders of strong prohibitions and severe penalties argue that these laws are needed to express, symbolize, and undergird social norms against drug use (DuPont, 1996). On the other side, critics of harsh penalties and zero-tolerance policies argue that over-reliance on formal controls can displace or weaken informal controls, especially when the intrusiveness and severity of the laws generate social alienation and discord (National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1973; Erickson, 1993). Despite its importance, the relationship between law and other forms of social control is poorly understood (Black, 1976; Ellickson, 1987), although the “expressive” function of law, and its relation to social norms, are receiving increasing attention in the legal literature (Lessig, 1995; Sunstein, 1996).
Sanctions against drug use are a preeminent feature of policy on illegal drugs, yet very little is known about the actual effects of these sanctions on drug use (independent of the effects of other social controls). Some observers have argued that enforcement of sanctions against users imposes substantial costs on individuals and on society without a demonstrable preventive effect beyond that achieved by the underlying illegality of the drug and strong social disapproval (New York County Lawyers’ Association, 1996). Supporters of these sanctions argue that strong penalties against use, including criminal punishment, are necessary to deter drug use, to facilitate treatment of drug users, and to register social disapproval in the strongest possible terms—often called “zero tolerance” (DuPont, 1996). These arguments raise important empirical issues regarding the declarative, deterrent, and therapeutic effects of criminal punishment and other sanctions. This chapter addresses these issues.
PROHIBITIONS AND PUNISHMENT
A comprehensive regime of state and federal laws proscribes production and distribution of illegal drugs for nonmedical, nonscientific purposes. Standing alone, these prohibitions vividly express the society’s opposition to nonmedical use of these drugs, while curtailing legitimate access and confining the drugs to an illicit market. Chapter 5 addresses