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June 30, 2010

Nemesis & Apocalypse

Mark Kleiman is a professor of pubic policy at UCLA; although we’ve never met face to face, we’ve been aware of each since May, 1996 when a letter I wrote accusing him of “intellectual constipation” was published in the Los Angeles Times. It had been written in response to an Op-Ed authored by Kleiman and psychiatrist Sally Satel on the dangers of methamphetamine, a new drug "menace" then being hyped in terms eerily similar to those used to describe the crack “epidemic” a decade earlier.

I later learned from a mutual acquaintance that Kleiman, then teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School, had been annoyed enough by my characterization to join the drug policy discussion group I’d been participating in as a neophyte, apparently intent on debate. Because communication was slower in 1996, I'd already departed on a European vacation when he began posting. By my return, he had been so rudely treated by list regulars he had resigned.

Our next brush came a year or two later when I sent him a rude e-mail after hearing a rebroadcast of his interview by a Bay Area NPR station. He responded with an expression of extreme annoyance. By then I’d also read Against Excess, his 1992 drug policy treatise and found it both confused and confusing; primarily because it tacitly endorses criminal prohibition as reasonable public policy. For me, what is inexplicable about many obviously intelligent drug prohibition advocates is their inability to recognize that the fate of the 18th Amendment should have conclusively demonstrated that human nature will defeat any attempt to outlaw commerce in a popular commodity or service. Fifteen additional years, eight of which have been spent interviewing criminal market participants, have strengthened that judgment to the point where I see continued UN efforts to sustain a global drug war in today's world as a sign our species is in deep trouble.

Parenthetically, a quick Google search also reveals that Dr. Satel seems have significantly modified a stance that was once very similar to the one Dr. Kleiman still embraces.

Moreover, current human population numbers may be so stressful and difficult to change (because of Path Dependence) that there is no practical alternative to hoping that leaders will recognize and correct them soon; a hope growing more forlorn by the day as crude oil gushes unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico.

Why, one might ask, should we concern ourselves with drug policy at such a time? One answer, applying to most humans with jobs or other projects that sustain them, is that even with an apocalypse approaching, we seem to need something to do. Besides, we’ve been here before, often without knowing it; especially since the dawn of the nuclear age. Indeed, we may have already survived several close calls; to say nothing of hazards we’d been blissfully unaware of for millennia.

For me, Mark Kleiman has come to represent the dilemma that has long puzzled our species: was our creation planned or accidental? It was set in motion so long ago and remains so inaccessible to proof that, short of a biblical Apocalypse, we are unlikely ever to know with certainty.

What makes it more poignant is that the discovery of empirical science five centuries ago might have offered something closer to real choice; had the long-established human institutions of temporal and religious power not contrived to effectively control how Science is used, a phenomenon that has forced us ever deeper into a trap from which escape may already be impossible.

Over the next several weeks, as we await various possible outcomes, I hope to outline why I think drug policy has become both a metaphor and a reason for whatever will happen.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at June 30, 2010 07:48 PM