DRUG WAR POLITICS argues that the current effort to combat drug abuse in the United States is dominated by a "punitive paradigm." Policies under this paradigm seek to control the supply of drugs by massive interdiction efforts and stringent punishment. Demand for drugs is addressed by allowing "zero tolerance" and making "no distinctions," that is, both dealers and users and subject to harsh punishments and no distinctions are made between drugs that are extremely dangerous and those that are less so.
The authors marshall a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that the punitive paradigm is a complete failure. Despite annual expenditures of $12 billion on drug control in the United States, the supply of drugs entering the United States and the availability of drugs to users has not been affected. Such policies have generated an insatiable demand for prison space and spawned a rash of violations of civil rights. Failure, however, only convinces the advocates of drug wars that greater effort needs to be taken--more money should be spent, prison sentences should be stiffer, and more drastic measures should be sanctioned. The "price of denial" in the authors' view is "the persistence of unworkable policies in the face of overwhelming evidence of their failure" (ix). Despite this, the U.S. government has "consistently refused to engage in a serious reevaluation of the strategy or a search for a different approach" (1).
To replace the punitive paradigm, the authors offer what they term the public health paradigm. Essentially the public health paradigm is built around the notion that prevention is more effective than cures. The damage of drug abuse and drug policy should be considered both to the individual and to the larger society (e.g., the ill effects of black markets). In addition to programs for education and treatment, the public health approach seeks to treat the social causes that generate drug abuse--unemployment, poverty, disruption of families, etc. It is a holistic approach that requires a fundamental rethinking about the problem of drug abuse, its causes, and its consequences. Examples are provided from both pilot programs in the United States and from other countries. The authors are under no illusion that such a shift will be easy to attain; they recognize the incentives that politicians have to continue the current policies. Little will change, they conclude, until "pressure mounts from citizens and organized groups demanding an end to the politics of denial" (263).
DRUG WAR POLITICS can be evaluated on two dimensions--as serious scholarship and as a contribution to public policy debate. As serious scholarship, the book fails. It presents no original research, analyzes no data, tests no hypotheses, and is not theoretically driven. The analysis that is done is secondary and tertiary. Perhaps the most best illustration of the book's approach is its consistent use of newspaper articles about original research on drug policy rather than using the original sources. The authors do a good job of piecing together evidence, few factual errors are made, but at the same time the serious scholar of drug policy will learn little new from the book. Scholars interested in the "drug law exception to the Fourth Amendment," for example, will not see a detailed examination of state and federal court cases, but rather will be subjected to a brief treatment with a few anecdotes and citations to the work of others. Reviewers should never criticize authors for not writing a different book; however, reviewers and readers should expect a major university press to publish serious scholarship rather than competent journalism.
As a contribution to the public policy debate, the book serves a useful purpose. The authors have a good grasp of the history of drug control policies to place the most recent war on drugs in context. They document both the failures of drug policy and its second-order costs on society; although some might quibble with the relative attention to some topics, e.g., the role of drugs in the corruption of police forces is given little attention and asset seizure laws are barely discussed, in the end all the parts are there. Many sections such as the one on why interdiction does not work are very well done.
Despite the authors' hopes for the public health approach to drug control, they apply the same critical assessment to the treatment literature that they do to law enforcement policy. A persuasive argument is made that treatment systems are currently in service to the punitive paradigm and that only by supporting escalation in the war on drugs, can treatment facilities gain additional funding. The authors quite rightly imply that more funds for treatment will not be panacea; that treatment is effective only in limited conditions that require both a desire to quit and a supportive social structure (job, family, etc.). The true solution to drug abuse, they contend, requires addressing serious problems of poverty and inequity. They realize that such an approach will be difficult and unpopular politically, yet such changes would clearly be no worse than current policy.
I recommend DRUG WAR POLITICS as a supplement in an undergraduate public policy or criminal justice class. The reading level is acceptable and it presents a reasoned argument. It joins perhaps one-half dozen other recent books on the same topic; check the card catalogue at your library, you can't expect me to do all the work. For undergraduate classes DRUG WAR POLITICS will work as well as any of the others. The book also serves as a nice introduction to the area of drug control policy for journalists and perhaps the general public. I would not recommend the book for graduate level classes.