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Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us
attitudes (Bonnie, 1981a). To the extent that these norms are rooted in moral antipathy toward drug use, strong sanctions against the behavior may also generate moralizing effects. (Andenaes, 1974; Zimring and Hawkins, 1973). It should also be noted, however, that under conditions of normative ambiguity or discord, punitive sanctions may also generate “reactance” in an alienated population and might actually provide an inducement for violation through a “forbidden fruit” effect. It is often suggested that laws against use of illegal drugs and underage use of alcohol and tobacco have such effects, although there is little direct evidence of this (MacCoun, 1993).
The empirical literature bearing on the declarative effects of legal sanctions is scant, mainly because it is so difficult to distinguish these effects from deterrent effects or to disentangle the effects of preexisting social norms and informal controls from the declarative effects of formally prescribed sanctions. In one of a series of studies investigating this issue, Grasmick et al. (1991) showed that an antilittering campaign increased the likelihood of compliance because people felt that violating the norm would be an occasion for shame or embarrassment. Similarly, substantial increases in seat belt use and child restraint after enactment of mandatory legal requirements appear to be attributable primarily to declarative effects (in this case, probably a pedagogical effect) rather than deterrence (Institute of Medicine, 1999). (Interestingly, proponents of so-called primary enforcement of seat belt laws—allowing a penalty for failing to wear a seat belt even if the driver has committed no other violation—argue that an increase in the deterrent threat is now needed to increase the rate of seat belt wearing beyond current levels.) No studies have successfully isolated the declarative effects of sanctions against use of illegal drugs from their deterrent effects.
It is generally assumed that sanctions against drug use also depress the prevalence of drug use through deterrence—i.e., potential users refrain from initiating or continuing use due to fear of being punished. According to the basic postulates of deterrence theory, persons considering using drugs will weigh the expected utility of the behavior against the subjectively perceived risk of punishment. The deterrent effect of a legal threat is thought to be a function of the severity of the threatened sanction, the probability that it will be imposed and, under some circumstances, the swiftness with which it is applied.
In general, research on the relation between perceived risk of detection and punishment and self-reported drug use tends to show that perceived legal risk explains very little of the variance in drug use (MacCoun,