Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September - October 2003

Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter.
Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, & Places.
Cambridge University Press, 2001, 479pp.
$US 25.00 paper (0-521-79997-X), $US 75.00 cloth (0-521-57263-0)

Anyone who was even vaguely annoyed by the Bush Administration’s vocal public hostility towards the Canadian government’s recent (May 2003) proposals to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis is likely to conclude, after reading this comprehensive and well researched book, that the further and the faster Canada can distance itself from US-style punitive drug policy, the better for us. The product of a collaboration between a psychologist and an economist, this book tackles the drug legalization issue in an distinctly un-American way, namely by going beyond the boundaries of the USA and its ideological mindset, and carefully assessing the evidence and examples provided by ten Western European countries. The analysis is further enriched by historical and comparative analysis that includes the currently licit drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as the vices of gambling and prostitution. In these transdisciplinary times, there is much to interest the sociological reader in areas of deviance, social problems, deterrence theory, politics, epidemiology and social and health policy; moreover, many sociologists who have contributed to the drug policy debate are cited herein. While the authors’ avowed aim is to help unlock the paralysis of current American drug policy and move it towards a rational drug control model, the global gridlock of American prohibitionist thinking about drugs – and Canada is no exception – make this book essential reading for an informed debate that could pave the way for change in other countries as well.

The book is organized in a logical progression, starting with an overview of American drug policy and its consequences, then setting out the key concepts and philosophical underpinnings of the legalization debate, next presenting the evidence from “other vices, times and places” which is the core and main original contribution of the book, and finally assessing the policy alternatives. The authors wisely refrain from more than a brief summary of the appalling results of the ever escalating war on drugs (e.g. nearly ten fold increase in drug arrests from 1985 to late 1990’s, with non-whites constituting three quarters of those imprisoned for drug offences) and accept as irrefutable that “the most conspicuous harms of drugs currently are those caused by prohibition, namely crime, disorder, corruption and the diseases related to injecting,…harms that are borne principally by the urban poor.” However, this conclusion does not lead them uncritically to a simplistic solution of legalization. Rather, they set out a complex taxonomy of different types of harms, in relation to different drugs, and then consider the likely impact of policy change on both drug use and drug harm, based on the available evidence. In the process, they provide the important insight that the legalization position in the USA has been intellectually powerful, drawing support from the academic and scientific community, but politically weak, so lacking in legitimacy as to be a taboo topic in the corridors of real power. (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that even in the Academy Award winning movie, “Traffic,” the desperate and open minded President apparently had no advisors willing to whisper the L word to him.)

The authors consider that there are important lessons to be learned from the drug control experiences of Western European nations. While they are signatories to the international conventions and prohibit the consumption and sale of the same drugs as does the USA, their various forms of implementation lead to many natural experiments. This is true not only for enforcement, but also for treatment and prevention (p. 209). These variations also have occurred in a normative context that rates addiction as a salient public health problem, as found in a European Communities survey. Canadians who are not aware of European developments may, for instance, be surprised that Italy and Spain apply only administrative sanctions for drug possession (usually a small fine for public consumption), that Switzerland has government sponsored opiate injection clinics for intractable users, that German cities have safe injection rooms, and that Sweden can impose mandatory treatment without arrest. The Dutch phenomenon of de facto legalization of cannabis in coffee shop outlets is better known, but not the effect it apparently has had on weakening the association with harder drug use, compared to the US. Similar controversial proposals that have been considered in Canada may seem less shocking when placed in the perspective of several years of European experience. At the very least, such diversity helps to move thinking about drug policy options beyond the monolithic criminal justice model of punishment that has so dominated North America.

The authors are not overly optimistic about the prospects for significant drug policy changes in the USA, given its administration’s allegiance to abstinence and zero-tolerance, and the public opposition to legalization (or even decriminalization) as being a “looming, impenetrable wall” for nearly 25 years. At best they foresee some modest scaling back in the most punitive aspects of prohibition. As well, they see potential gains emerging in the medical marijuana campaigns with local and state support, and in the public health approach of shifting the aims of policy from use reduction to harm reduction, since the acceptability of reducing risks is familiar from other safety issues such as sex and driving. Realists, they recognize that policy is not only evidence based, but politically driven. Overall they provide a sophisticated, balanced and insightful analysis of contemporary drug policy issues, one that is particularly relevant to Canadians seeking ways out of the confines of total prohibition.

One minor quibble with this book is the nearly total lack of reference to the experience of their northern neighbour, a seemingly ideal comparative case study. This neglect is redeemed somewhat by MacCoun’s recent Op Ed piece defending Canada’s step towards marijuana decriminalization and castigating US isolation on drug policy matters (“O Cannabis,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 11, 2003). This stance is not surprising, however, given that penalty reduction for cannabis offences is the only policy change that the authors see as clearly meeting both the empirical and the political standards of proof, namely, that gains will exceed costs without compromising basic values. Perhaps our own politicians can be encouraged to read this book and move beyond the 30 year impasse in cannabis reform since the Le Dain Commission recommendations.

Patricia G. Erickson, Ph.D
Senior Scientist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and
Adjunct Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto

Patricia Erickson is the author of Cannabis Criminals: The Social Effects of Punishment on Drug Users (ARF Books, 1980), co-author of The Steel Drug: Cocaine and Crack in Perspective (Lexington Books, 1994, 2nd ed.), and co-editor of Harm Reduction: A New Direction for Drug Policies and Programs (U of T Press, 1997). She has an ongoing interest in cannabis policy reform and harm reduction initiatives, and has presented her research findings before the recent Parliamentary committees on illicit drug policy in Canada.
September 2003
CJS Online

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