A major preoccupation of mine in working on this blog has to do with the marketing of drug policy reform as a concept. One thing I keep wringing my hands over is the term “harm reduction” as a description of a health-oriented approach to drug policy. “Harm reduction” is great if you already know what it is and why it makes more sense than a criminal justice-oriented model, but if you’re the parent of a 12-year-old kid it probably won’t exactly sound like an idea you want to embrace with open arms.
“Guess what? We in the government have decided to just go ahead and let little Timmy smokecrank. But don’t worry, because we’re going to use something called ‘harm reduction’ so that his brain is only somewhat scrambled in the process.”
It doesn’t realy sell itself, to say the least. That’s because you can’t talk about “harm reduction” without implicitly saying “we accept that people are going to harm themselves.”
Now, anybody who stops to think about how life actually is for a minute or two will admit that yes, in fact, people do harm themselves, always have and always will. But it’s just not a good way to sell a policy, any more than it would be for a car company to sell its cars primarily through a campaign that advertised “less destructive head-on collisions.”
But what’s the alternative? “Health-oriented” doesn’t really cut it, because it’s extremely vague language. It’s so vague, in fact, that John Walters of the ONDCP just co-opted it in connection with that agency’s report on marijuana, calling marijuana “a public health, and, increasingly, a public safety dilemma.” If Walters, the lead cheerleader of a policy that allows law enforcement interests to completely trump legitimate health concerns, is claiming that he’s working to protect “public health,” then public health is simply not a meaningful or useful label. So we need an alternative, and we need something concise, punchy, evocative and relatively accessible.
One idea that I was kicking around with my wife the other day involves the rhetoric of capitalism. Instead of talking about “harm reduction,” we might say “regulated market.” As in“Fighting a ‘war’ on drugs simply doesn’t work. I favor a regulated market approach instead.” It taps into the American enthusiasm for using market solutions to problems, but acknowledges that the government can and should continue to play a role in setting the parameters for the safest possible market operation around drugs.
I dunno if it’s a term that could catch on. I only know that “harm reduction” is an uphill battle. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because it’s a lousy name.