Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Clinging to Failure: The Rise and Continued Life of U.S. Drug Policy

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Clinging to Failure: The Rise and Continued Life of U.S. Drug Policy

Article excerpt

Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. xiv + 347 pages. $17.95 paper. Diana R. Gordon, The Return of the Dangerous Classes: Drug Prohibition and Policy Politics. New York: Norton, 1994. xi + 316 pages. $29.95 cloth.

Why do public policies persist in the face of failure? How do certain approaches to public problems gain such a dominance over our patterns of thinking that their lack of success only implies the need for more of the same? Why does the policymaking process become so preoccupied with a narrow range of alternatives, so blinded by a narrow range of presuppositions and untested assumptions, that creativity is crushed and realistic alternatives remain unexplored? Why, in short, is the policymaking process so frustratingly impervious to the facts?

These questions may be asked about any number of contemporary public policies, but they are particularly pressing in matters of crime and punishment. Why, for example, in spite of mounting evidence that ever increasing punitiveness does not reduce crime, do policymakers cling to the view that incarceration and its variations (coupled with the death penalty) are the only viable approaches to the "crime problem"?' But perhaps the clearest example of the imperviousness of the policy process to research findings is contemporary drug policy, and the attempt to figure out why our failed policy has not long since been jettisoned forms the common theme of these books.

Discussions of contemporary drug policy too often seem to be based on the assumption that public policy exists in a vacuum. Reviews of the successes and failures of what can be called the "prohibition model" rarely detail the ways in which this framework-this mindset, this group of presuppositions, this complex of assumptions and logical links-emerged out of the nonprohibitionist past, nor have they explored the sociocultural roots of its persistence in the face of mounting failure. Rarely have these reviews sought to examine the links between drug policy and social, political, and economic forces. And thus rarely have they been positioned to offer realistic policy alternatives. Assuming that law is, to a great extent, autonomous-not structured by social, economic, and cultural forces-these analyses simply lay out the facts and suggest that a new policy framework replace the failed old one. At work here is a denuded picture of the policymaking process, a picture that assumes policymakers making rational decisions based on a reasonable weighing of costs and benefits unimpeded by either deep-seated cognitive frameworks or sociopolitical forces. Much policy analysis is rooted in the facile assumption that laying out the facts about a policy's failure and/or its negative consequences will produce, almost automatically, reasonable policy changes.

Happily, these books are exceptions to the standard fare. They adopt the view that policy cannot be separated from the social and cultural contexts in which they are born and abide. They attempt a kind of archaelogy of the mindset that feeds our prohibitionist approach to drugs, recognizing that the shape of legal policy can only be understood in the context of the social, political, economic, and cultural forces that gave it birth, sustain it over time, and continue to buttress it today. While the stories told by these books differ somewhat, and while much else remains to be said before we understand what Diana Gordon calls the "hammerlock" of the punitive, prohibition model, together they make a noteworthy contribution to the drug policy debate.

The Failures of Prohibitionism

Specific policies imply or reflect underlying policy "models" that provide a definition of the relevant problem, a set of presumptions about its causes, and a delimited range of solutions. The model underlying drug policy in the United States has been, since at least 1919, what many have called the "prohibition model" and what Bertram and her colleagues call the "punitive paradigm. …

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