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 Post—you 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: