Ending The War on Drugs - A New Cause For Effective Altruists?

post by MichaelPlant · 2021-05-06T13:18:04.524Z · EA · GW · 20 comments

This is a link post for https://www.newstatesman.com/international/2021/05/why-drugs-should-be-not-only-decriminalised-fully-legalised

Peter Singer and I argue for drug legalisation in an article that was published in the New Statesman earlier this week (link to my tweet). In short, we argue 'War on Drugs' has failed and it's time that governments, not gangsters, run the drug market.

I posted what follows below in the EA facebook group and was encouraged to do so here too (as the discussion is often better).

The aim of the article wasn't to make an argument in 'EA terms': we merely claimed that moving from drug prohibition to drug legalisation would be a good thing, not that putting money or time put towards this would be (for someone) the most good they could do.

However, I would like to elaborate on the article and say why effective altruists might be interested in this cause area - not least because it's not really been discussed before, conversations about psychedelics [? · GW]and my 2017 EA forum posts on the topic [EA · GW] aside, and it seems important to 'keep EA weird' and continue to keep the proverbial eyes peeled for ways to, well, do good better!

The thrust of the article is that drug legalisation would do quite a bit of good. I suspect the largest part of this is that those in drug-producing and trafficking countries would no longer be affected by the corruption and violence that drug cartels, and the War of Drugs, bring. One well-known example is the Mexican Drug War where over 100,000 are estimated to have died since 2006. Such conflict is destabilising and hinders the economic development of many of the world's poorer citizens. Hence, it might look good solely as a poverty alleviation policy.

It would also benefit those people who are currently criminalised for drug offenses - in the US, 1/5th of the prison population - as well as reduce harms to users, raise money states could spend elsewhere, and some other things besides.

Determining the scale of the problem isn't straightforward and I haven't yet really tried, but my hot take is that, on a global scale, it's not trivial. Certainly, it's not so trivial it should be dismissed out of hand. As one indication, the UN estimates the illicit drug trade is worth 1.5% of world GDP.

The natural EA question is "okay, but how cost-effective is it vs other things?"

If you're thinking as a citizen, this question isn't so relevant: it doesn't really cost you anything to support this policy change, talk to your friends about it, etc., and it's not as if supporting this would take public money from anything else you might value - indeed, it's a revenue raiser. I leave it open how valuable it is to spend extra 'citizen time' on this vs some other policy. Drug policy reform could be one item in a potential basket of 'no-cost' policies an effective altruist might support alongside, say, improved animal welfare. (I previously posted about a policy platform back in 2019 [EA · GW], but nothing much happened.)

If you're thinking as a donor, then you really would wonder how drug policy reform efforts, e.g. advocacy organisations, compare to other things. This is pretty complicated as both the scale of the problem is unclear (as noted) *and* it's really tricky to model the effectiveness of systemic change interventions anyway. I don't have the capacity to look at this anytime soon, nor will it be a priority for the Happier Lives Institute, but I would be really enthusiastic for someone else to take a stab at this and would be happy to chat to them about it.

If you're wondering what to do with your career, I think it's very possible, given the importance of personal fit, that this could be a priority path for someone with suitable skills and interests. At least, it's worth considering.

Finally, it's worth noting that, if someone objects to the effective altruism community on the grounds it ignores (1) systemic changes and (2) social justice, this would be something to point to on both counts. Not only is drug policy reform a society-wide intervention, but drug prohibition disproportionately affects the marginalised groups who use or supply drugs - America's drug policies often described as racist. I don't think aspiring effective altruists should prioritise it solely for this reason, but seems something to bear in mind.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2021-05-06T20:56:20.214Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would expect this not to be very neglected, hence I would expect EAs to be able to have much impact here only if, for example, it's effectively neglected because the existing people pushing for an end to the drug war are unusually ineffective.

For example, there's already NORML, who's been working on cannabis angle of this since the 1970s to decent success, Portugal has already ended the drug war locally, and Oregon recently decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use.

Getting involved feels a bit like getting involved in, say, marriage equality in the 2000s: the change was already clearly in motion, plenty of people were working to push for it, and so there's not clearly a lot additional that EAs could have brought to the table.

Replies from: MichaelPlant, freedomandutility
comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-05-06T21:28:21.872Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm partially sympathetic to this. However, I think EAs have got a bit hung up on 'neglectedness' to the extent it's got in the way of clear thinking: if lots of people are doing something, and you can make them do it slightly better, then working on non-neglected things is promising. Really, I think you need to judge the 'facts on the grounds', what you can do, and go from there. If there aren't ruthlessly impact-focused types working on a problem, that would a good heuristic for some such people to get stuck in.

What was salient to me, compared to when I knew very little of the topic, is how much larger the expected value of drug legalisation now seems.

Replies from: Harrison D, MichaelPlant, jackmalde, gworley3, Akash, AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by Harrison D · 2021-05-08T01:53:07.004Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[Incoming shameless self-promotion]

I think this is an example of where it may be helpful to move from the importance-tractability-neglectedness (INT) framework for selecting cause areas to looking more narrowly at the possible actions (or categories thereof, such as "voting; donating to political campaign groups; arguing for this in the public sphere/on social media; etc.") through the TUILS framework I've written about [EA · GW]. The TUILS framework uses "trajectory/uniqueness" instead of "neglectedness", which means that it doesn't assume that the more neglected a cause/action is the better it is.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-05-10T16:00:39.367Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What I think the three different replies to this comment indicate is that crudely thinking "how many resources go to this thing?" is, in itself, neither necessary nor sufficient to deem something a high priority. We need a fuller story about the nature of the problem, it's scale, potential solutions, obstacles, and the rest. I don't think anyone has tried to do that for this issue, which is why I'd like someone to dig into it.

This strikes me as an issue where it's not obviously high priority, but because it's not obvious, it is worth researching further to see if it is.

comment by jackmalde · 2021-05-07T18:52:44.633Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that's fair but I also think that non-neglectedness is actually bad for two reasons:

  1. Diminishing returns (which may not be the case if people are solving the problem poorly)
  2. Crowdedness meaning it's harder to change direction even if people are solving the problem poorly (although this point is really tractability so one needs to be careful about not double-counting when doing ITN).

I'm thinking number 2 could be quite relevant in this case. Admittedly it's quite relevant for any EA intervention that involves systemic change, but I get the impression that other systemic change interventions may be even higher in importance.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2021-05-07T16:38:34.941Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this starts to get at questions of tractability, i.e. how neglected is this contingent on tractability (and vice versa). In my mind this is one of the big challenges of any kind of policy work where there's already a decent number of folks in the space: you have to have reasonably high confidence that you can do better than everyone else is doing now (and not just that you have an idea for how to do better, but like can actually succeed in executing better) in order for it to cross the bar of a sufficiently effective intervention (in expectation) to be worth working on.

comment by Akash · 2021-05-10T21:48:43.060Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the steelman of the neglectedness argument would be something like: "The less neglected something is, the less likely it is that we would be able to make them do it slightly better."

This is both because (a) it is harder to change the direction of the movement and (b) it is harder to genuinely find meaningful ways to improve the movement.

In (b), I wonder if there are some specific limitations of the current War-on-Drugs movement that would match the skills/interests of (some) EAs. 

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-05-14T03:42:49.571Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here's a list of critiques of the ITN framework [EA · GW] many of which involve critiques of the neglectedness criterion.

Ending the war on drugs has a few obvious goods:

  1. Making therapeutic or life-improving drugs more available
  2. Freeing up tax money for other purposes
  3. Decreasing punishment
  4. Decreasing revenue for terrorists and other bad actors

This seems to be a cause where partial success is meaningful. Every reduction in unnecessary imprisonment, tax dollar saved, and terrorist cell put out of business is a win. We also have some roughly sliding scales - the level of enforcement priority, gradations of legality (research vs medical vs recreational, decriminalization vs legalization), and treatment of offenders (informal social norms vs warnings vs treatment/fines vs jail).

So this suggests to me that neglectedness is relevant in this case. How relevant seems like a detailed question. But given that there's a fair amount of short-term self-interested incentives to legalize drugs, it doesn't seem obvious a priori that this would be a target for EAs relative to, say, animal suffering.

comment by freedomandutility · 2021-05-09T18:40:34.865Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this is still a good cause area for EAs:

  1. I think the potential positive effects of global drug legalisation on opioid access in LMICs adds massively to the expected value
  2. I agree that this area is probably not neglected in absolute terms, but I suspect that it might be neglected relative to the expected value of global drug legalisation
  3. I think a global angle (which might have more of a focus on working with WHO and the UN) might not even be neglected in absolute terms
Replies from: gworley3
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2021-05-11T05:09:49.661Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My model is the that the global angle is kind of boring: the drug war was pushed by the US, and I expect if the US ends it then other nations will either follow their example or at least drift in random directions with the US no longer imposing the drug war on them by threat of trade penalties.

comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2021-05-06T18:25:20.763Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought Open Phil's Criminal Justice Reform efforts would include work in this area and it seems they've done some research into this. Some links from a quick google for interested persons:



Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-05-07T07:58:38.211Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, there is some overlap here, certainly.

OPP has, I undestand it, worked on drug decriminalisation, cannabis legalisation, and prison reform, all within the US. What we might call 'global drug legalisation' goes further with respected to drug policy reform (legal, regulated markets for all drugs + global scope, rather than then US) but it also wouldn't cover non-drug related prison reforms.

comment by evelynciara · 2021-05-10T04:35:46.360Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From the piece:

There is a better option: a regulated market, much as we have for alcohol and tobacco, with controls on who can buy what, when, where and how. It provides the flexibility to treat different drugs differently, thereby minimising the harms of drug consumption and ending those associated with the illicit drug trade.

Unfortunately, overregulation would still lead to illegal drug trade and the associated public health and criminal justice problems. In California, there's a parallel market for unlicensed sales of marijuana because of high taxes, high compliance costs, and the limited supply of licenses. Since Black and Hispanic dealers have been having trouble entering the legal market due to the high costs involved, they are still disproportionately subject to marijuana-related arrests, and legal marijuana shops have been aggressively lobbying to get unlicensed sales shut down. And even in states where marijuana has been legalized, Black and Latino people are still disproportionately arrested for marijuana-related offenses compared to White people (for example, as of 2018, public consumption of weed was still illegal in DC). These harms need to be weighed alongside the benefits and costs of different regulatory models for each drug being considered.

Replies from: Davidmanheim, MichaelPlant
comment by Davidmanheim · 2021-05-10T12:53:43.412Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that legalization will solve racial bias in policing - I think the relevant question is whether Black and Latino people are arrested at higher or lower rates now for drug-related offenses than they were before legalization.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-05-10T16:04:18.010Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Right, so I do agree that if you're going to move away from prohibition, you do need to consider how non-prohibition would be implemented in reality, rather than some fictitious ideal world, and then whether it really would be better in reality. The thing people tend to forget is that you can evolve regulation, so I'm optimistic problems like those mentioned here can eventually be overcome.

Also, to state the obvious, that something has some problems is not an all-things-considered reason against doing it.

comment by Linch · 2021-05-10T19:22:46.962Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you're thinking as a citizen, this question isn't so relevant: it doesn't really cost you anything to support this policy change, talk to your friends about it, etc., and it's not as if supporting this would take public money from anything else you might value - indeed, it's a revenue raiser. I leave it open how valuable it is to spend extra 'citizen time' on this vs some other policy. Drug policy reform could be one item in a potential basket of 'no-cost' policies an effective altruist might support alongside, say, improved animal welfare. (I previously posted about a policy platform back in 2019 [EA · GW], but nothing much happened.)

This assumes (possibly correctly, but should still be noted) that supporting policy changes/talking to friends etc about this is indeed close to free. I think there are some reasons to think otherwise (eg time spent supporting specific policy changes can be spent supporting other policy changes, time spent being in an "activist mindset"about X  policy  when talking with friends trades off against both being activisty about Y policy and also with time being in more exploratory modes of thinking, etc).

comment by RogerAckroyd · 2021-05-08T08:14:46.882Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would think associating the EA "brand" with drug legalisation would cause a negative reaction among at least as many people who would appreciate it because it shows concern for systemic change. I also don't see how it more of an example of systemic change than changing animal welfare laws to ban a lot of current practices, or regulating AI, to cite two political goals that some EA pursue. 

I also think the fact that it is non-neglected means that anyone who thinks this is the most good they can do could easily find a current organisation to join and campaign with. I think figuring out which campaigning methods are most effective is something where EA methodology does not have much advantage anyway, so little reason to think an EA-aligned organisation would be unusally effective. 

Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-05-10T16:18:35.414Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I was waiting for this! I thought there were going to be lots of "this would be bad for the EA brand" comments. As some evidence against this, and to my surprise, across all the places where I posted this, or saw others post it (on the EA forum, facebook, and twitter) the post received very little pushback.

I was actually pretty disappointed with this as it made me think it hadn't reached many who would disagree. On the plus side, this suggests this cause is not going to objectionable amongst people who are sympathetic to EA ideas.

Re the second para, I wasn't claiming that a new organisation would need to exist. My concern what whether it was reasonable to think this is where (for someone) their money or time could do the most good. That doesn't imply they would need to start something.

comment by Akash · 2021-05-10T21:46:26.037Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd be curious to learn more about the "types" of EAs that might be best-suited for this work, or how the "EA perspective" could enhance ongoing efforts.

As it stands, the case for scale (i.e., the magnitude of the problem) is very clear. However, I think scale is usually the strongest part of most cause area analyses (i.e., there are a lot of really big problems and it's usually not too difficult to articulate the bigness of those problems, especially using words rather than models). I think the role that EAs would play is less clear (as has been reflected in other comments relating to neglectedness). So, I wonder:

Are there some clear gaps or limitations in the current anti-War-on-drugs movement that could be filled by EA perspectives/skills? (As an example, one of the commentators emphasized that global efforts to legalize drugs may be neglected, and EAs who have skills/interests related to global advocacy might be especially helpful).

comment by Jsevillamol · 2021-05-25T18:17:04.793Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One key argument made in the article is that drug use is relatively inelastic - spending more on enforcement does not seem to change the amoung of drugs consumed in a zone.
I found this persuasive, but I just found one piece of evidence on the contrary: Australia has had a lot of success combating heroin overdoses via enforcing drug trafficking laws 

Obviously the situation in Australia might be different than in other parts of the world, but this gives me a bit of pause. Definitely merits more analysis of the tradeoffs involved!