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Overdosing on Extremism?: A Quick Response

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Starting the New Year Right-- No! I Mean Center!

A happy new year to Points readers!  Trysh Travis was kind enough to alert me to this op-ed piece, “Overdosing on Extremism” by Kevin A. Sabet, which appeared in the New Year’s Day edition of the New York Times.  Sabet was a staff member at the Office of National Drug Control policy until 2011; recently, he’s begun policy consulting in the drug field, and been doing a lot of writing, for The Fix and The Huffington Postyou can see more at his home page.  Dr. Sabet earned a Ph.D. in Social Policy, publishing a few academic articles before joining the ONDCP.

So, what do we make of “Overdosing on Extremism”?  It is a brief, op-ed sized summary of Sabet’s mend it-don’t end it approach to drug prohibition, views he has more fully elaborated in “Making it Happen: The Case for Compromise in the Federal Cocaine Law Debate,” Social Policy & Administration 39 (2005): 181-191.  At the heart of this approach is a reasonable point: that what we call “prohibition” is actually a complex set of policy choices, each with a broad range of options.  Following from that premise, Sabet and others have made the case that the problems of prohibition are not fundamental but, instead, problems of implementation.  Drug prohibition can be accomplished in a more effective, rational way.  Prohibition can avoid excessive punishment, corrosive racism, and pointless social programming, by focusing on “what works” in drug policy.  How do we get there?  According to Sabet, we give way to the “drug-policy centrists” out there, the “moderates” who can steer policy through the  hazards of dueling extremist agendas.

At the outset, I will say that there is certainly something to be said for the ability of productive centrist politics to move specific areas of social policy forward in incremental fashion.  Most of the time, incremental progress beats stalemate or total defeat.  That said, I’m not sure that Sabet offers a persuasive way forward in “Overdosing on Extremism” either from a policy perspective, or from a historical one.  I’ll focus on the latter (but implicate the former), with a few quick reactions:To begin, who exactly are the “moderates” of drug policy history that Sabet is conjuring up here?  Here’s what he writes:

Indeed, moderates have historically been key contributors to both the debate and the practice of effective drug policy. In 1914, Representative Francis B. Harrison, a New York Democrat, worked with Republicans and President Woodrow Wilson to pass the first major piece of federal anti-drug legislation, in response to a surge in heroin and cocaine use. Other moderates, from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, made drug policy an important part of their domestic agendas. President Bill Clinton worked closely with Bob Dole, the Republican Senate majority leader, on sensible measures like drug courts and community policing. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the reason there is a drug czar in the first place, having pushed the idea for years before President Ronald Reagan approved it.

The Third Way

So, “moderates” appear to be one of two varieties in what I’ll concede is just a shorthand summary.  They might be, first of all, politicians generally recalled by Sabet today for their policy “moderation”–here, we could include Roosevelt and Kennedy, and perhaps Joe Biden.  Of course, generic policy “moderation”–even if we were fully comfortable in accepting this label for TR, JKF, and our current VP–has little or nothing to say about their drug policy stances, which may or may not have been as moderate as their policy views more generally.  Biden, for example, as a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate was for many years among the most hawkish of Congressional drug warriors.  Which brings us to the second element of Sabet’s moderation–bipartisan policy making.  Here, Sabet gives us Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan, and even Democratic Representative Francis B. Harrison and his Republican colleagues in 1914 (coming together to pass the Harrison Act, the foundational piece of federal drug legislation).  Here again, though, the connection to actual moderate drug policy making is a tenuous one.

Bipartisanship is hardly the guarantor of moderation.  Alcohol prohibition rode in to bipartisan applause.  So, too, did the exceedingly punitive Boggs and Daniels acts in the 1950s, and the 100-t0-1 crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity enshrined in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.  Frankly, lots of immoderate social policy in U.S. history enjoyed very high levels of bipartisan support.  Without a clear sense of who the “drug-policy centrists” are and what sorts of policy choices define them, it is hard to know what to make of Sabet’s call to action.  It would even nicer (icing on the cake) to get rid of the fuzzy historical examples, and perhaps locate some actual historical examples of drug policy centrists in action.

The Phantom Surge

But, if we’re going to write the history of drug policy centrism (or at least invoke that history to cheerlead the current push for such a thing), there are two big problems to overcome.  First, we need to stop using careless historical analysis, and start employing some evidence-based historical research.  Sabet rings in 2012 with the year’s first (surely not the year’s last) flawed bit of  historical argument: that Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914 in response to a “surge in heroin and cocaine use.”  Sabet knows some drug history (he used Musto’s The American Disease in his 2005 article), but not enough to know that there was no surge of use that preceded the Harrison Act.  On the contrary, David Courtwright has effectively demonstrated that opiate consumption was decliningby 1914, and I have argued that the same was true for cocaine.  It seems a minor point, but it isn’t–the bipartisan Harrison Act is hardly the model of rational, evidence-based policy making, and certainly was something far more complicated than a utilitarian response to objective trends in drug taking.

Which leads me to the second problem with writing the history of drug policy centrism: the center of what?   Drug policy is far too complicated to reduce to a single spectrum anchored by a single pair of policy poles, between which exists some sort of unified “center” of policy making.  Sabet obviously understands this, to the extent that he is frustrated by the manner in which public conversations about drug policy dwell on legalization and law enforcement to the exclusion of much else.  But how real and definable is the centrism he seeks?  To what extent can harm reduction activists coexist with consumer protection liberals, libertarians, various drug treatment communities, and so forth.  Can we summon useful historical examples of this actually happening, and to what extent can these serve as a roadmap for the future?

I’m starting a conversation here, so this initial response isn’t meant to be the final word on the subject.

Wanted: Utilitarian Responses to Objective Trends in Drug-Taking


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