To try to bolster Brad Plumer's modest optimism that we really might adopt more sensible drug policy options, let me note that the best available alternative to the "war on drugs" mentality is actually pretty "tough." The main alternative Brad discusses, based on David Kennedy's work, has to dow with strictly targeting violent crime and the kind of over open-air drug markets that are associated with violence. A tighter focus of crime control resources on violent murderers and people who destroy neighborhoods with their drug dealing doesn't strike me as something that's particularly "soft" or that politicians need to be afraid of.
Meanwhile, in political terms it's sometimes useful to do things that work. If you're a mayor and you implement a somewhat controversial new policing strategy at the start of your term, and then three years later the murder rate's gone way down, you're in pretty good shape. It often seems to me that there's a general tendency to underrate the political benefits of implementing policies that work. On some issues, of course, the incentives really are perverse because the payoff is very long term, but policing issues aren't really like that -- if you do things that reduce crime, people will be happy. Smarter drug control policies will reduce crime, so politicians have good reason to seek out smarter policies.
Photo by Flickr user kissthis used under a Creative Commons license
Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.