Monday, January 30, 2012

Drug war and policy termination

Renee Scherlen, "The Never-Ending Drug War: Obstacles to Drug War Policy Termination." PS: Political Science and Politics 45, 1 (January 2012): 67-73.


Why does the war on drugs continue after 40 years? This article combines theories of policy termination and prospect theory to explain the drug war's persistence. After reviewing the case for termination, the article turns to policy termination theory. As previous case studies have demonstrated, rationality and economic reasoning alone fail to persuade politicians to end existing policies. In the case of the drug war, specific characteristics of the drug policy and the current political environment, as well as typical institutional and bureaucratic constraints, create substantial obstacles to end the drug war. Perceptions of the risks and benefits of drug war termination also create difficulties. The article concludes that a number of factors need to shift before drug war policy termination can take place.

As Scherlen notes right away, it's hard to terminate any policy. In the case of the "drug war," this takes on greater significance because it is a policy that has failed according to every single metric you can conjure up.

Using prospect theory, Scherlen argues that use of language is key for understanding not only why a policy continues, but how possibly to terminate it.

The analysis of the drug war policy termination process highlights the role that opinion about drugs, drug use, and the consequences of policy termination are central to the drug war's persistence. In terms of prospect theory, drug war framing is the crucial element. There is presently a low probability of policy termination; the public and politicians prefer the status quo to the risks of policy termination. However, if domain perceptions can be altered, the prospects for termination grow stronger. Policy termination entails risk; the future is an unknown while the present is not. If pursuit of the present course were presented as leading to sure loss (in prospect theory terms, shifting perceptions to the loss domain), then people would become more risk acceptant. Another method would be to offer an alternative policy as a “sure bet.” The result would be to place perceptions of policy change into the gains domain. Again, this would lead to greater support for policy change. 
How can proponents of policy termination change public perception? Prospect theory experiments review that language is central. Highlighting prospective gains (for example, emphasis on tax revenue to be generated by policy termination) while emphasizing current losses (for example, persistent failure to achieve goals) could prove to be effective.

I don't see it changing soon, but the importance of language is interesting. The debate itself has to be reframed so that people see less risk with termination. However, it is difficult to imagine how any alternative could successfully be framed as a "sure bet," because, of course, none of them are.


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