15 October, 2016

I Helped Bust A Drug Dealer. Now I Want Lawmakers To Bust The System That Creates Drug Dealers.

Yesterday I told a group of systems thinkers that the “war on drugs” is really a giant “red bead experiment” that proves day after day that our “war on drugs” is not a “broken system” but a system that efficiently and reliably produces exactly the results we don’t want – drug-related deaths caused by heroine laced with carfentanyl, turf wars between armed drug dealers, thefts, home invasions, robberies and even murders by addicts seeking drugs or money. The current system of drug prohibition reminds me, I said, of another system, alcohol prohibition, that we abandoned and replaced because it reliably produced the wrong “product.”  The designers of our system of drug prohibition, our lawmakers, have learned nothing from our country’s failed alcohol prohibition of the early 20th century.

Every “product” or outcome is the result of a system that produced it. To change the outcome, you have to re-engineer the system that is producing the unwanted outcome. People don’t always see the systems that are produce outcomes but those systems exist nonetheless. For example, today we have the means to see and understand the “weather systems” that our TV meteorologists talk about and we know that weather is produced by weather systems. Just a few hundred years ago we had no idea where our weather came from because we had no way to “see” the weather systems. One of the things Deming’s red bead experiment teaches us is that outcomes are produced by systems and that we can’t change the outcome without changing the system that produces it. We can’t change the weather but we can change the drug prohibition system that actually encourages the manufacture and sale of the drugs we don’t want people to consume.

After W. Edwards Deming taught post-World-War-II Japan how to become a manufacturing powerhouse, he became famous for his live, somewhat theatrical “experiment” or “game” that he used to teach US managers and executives what he had taught the Japanese.

In the red bead experiment, Deming announces that he has created a company whose mission is to produce white beads for its customers. He recruits from his audience four “willing workers,” two quality inspectors, a chief quality inspector, and an accountant. The “willing workers” are then “trained” to “produce” white beads. Deming then starts supplying the willing workers with both red and white beads.  He also makes the willing workers use some clumsy paddles with which to collect and “produce” only white beads. The red beads are “defects.” The “willing workers” are warned against producing red beads. If the willing workers accidentally fail to separate red beads from white beads and “produce” too few white beads, the quality inspectors yell at them and threaten them, the chief quality inspector threatens and yells at the lower quality inspectors, the accountant yells at the chief quality inspector. How long will it take for somebody in this experiment to notice that the problem is not that the willing workers are very bad at “producing” only white beads, the problem is that the system in which they are working produces both red and white beads? To eliminate red beads from the production end of the system you have to keep the red beads out of the system.

In our system of drug prohibition, the “willing workers” are police, prosecutors and judges. But notice that the police, the prosecutors, the judges and the prisons didn’t build the system that produces bad outcomes. The system that produces the drug war’s bad outcomes is the legislative branch of government. Everybody else just works in that system.

How long will it take for the participants in this drug prohibition system to quit talking about raising taxes to hire more cops, prosecutors and judges and build more prisons and start talking about how to change the system that is producing more drug dealers than we can arrest, prosecute and jail?

Fortunately, a proven model for regulating the manufacture and sale of previously illegal substance exists. You see it work every time you watch a person walk in to a Rite Aid, buy a bottle of Wild Turkey, then walk out of the store without anyone getting arrested or gunned down in a turf war. When lawmakers make it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol or drugs they essentially give lawbreakers an irresistibly lucrative franchise to make and sell alcohol and drugs. Lawbreakers become the only game in town. Prohibition systems do not produce the result we want, decreased substance abuse, but prohibition systems guarantee that criminals will supply substance abusers with the substances they crave because there’s so much money in providing substances that are illegal to make and sell.  

Lawmakers, it’s time for you to do your jobs and change the unsustainable system your policies created. Society’s “willing workers” – police, prosecutors and judges – are getting “red beads” from a system that needs to be redesigned to make only “white beads.” We can go broke hiring more police, prosecutors and judges and building more prisons, or, lawmakers can do their jobs and replace the drug prohibition system with a sustainable system that more closely resembles the system of alcohol regulation and taxation that replaced alcohol prohibition.

This post’s author, Joseph Higginbotham, has never used any illegal or non-prescribed drug. Many of the insights that led to this article came to me while helping my city councilperson and local police build a case against a neighborhood drug dealer. It took months of great police work and "neighborhood watch" work for us to build the case. Over a period of a couple of years, local police arrested the drug dealer several times and he eventually spent some time in prison. To build cases against, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate all the drug dealers in my little town would require more taxation than any town, county or state can afford. I've seen our drug prohibition system up close. It's not sustainable.

Joseph Higginbotham has written hundreds of articles and columns for dozens of magazines, journals and newspapers. 
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