Former US Drug Czar Bill Bennett recently penned an op-ed on CNN.com entitled “Why Barney Frank and Ron Paul are wrong on drug legalization” in response to the two congressmen filing HR 2306, the bill to end federal marijuana criminalization. Paul Armentano has already attacked this quite well on the NORML Blog, noting the bill “does not “legalize drugs” or even so much as legalize marijuana. Rather, this legislation removes the power to prosecute minor marijuana offenders from the federal government and relinquishes this authority to state and local jurisdictions.”
That’s where I’m going to take over and attack the substance of Bennett’s op-ed, because the casual reader might be persuaded by some of his faulty reasoning. In passing, I’d also like to note that Bill Bennett has enjoyed fatty foods to excess, consumed toxic and addictive alcohol and tobacco regularly, and once admitted to an $8 million dollar gambling habit, so forgive me if I grant Bennett’s proclamations on “virtue” and healthy lifestyle choices the same respect as I give celebrities who tell me to go vegetarian to save the environment while they’re flying cross-country on private jets.
1. Never talk about “legalizing marijuana”, always talk about “legalizing drugs”.
This is the prime directive of prohibitionist prose. ”Legalizing marijuana” is actually becoming quite popular. Nobody is really that afraid of marijuana. But drugs, why, that’s terrifying (heroin, cocaine, and meth, oh my!) Never mind that Barney Frank and Ron Paul didn’t submit a bill to legalize drugs but merely de-penalize cannabis; Ron Paul once said he’d legalize heroin and that’s all Bennett needs to justify the link.
Here’s how you defuse this Bennett Bulletpoint: Should all drugs be legal? Well, cocaine and meth are already “legal”, in that they are Schedule II drugs that can be prescribed in the United States. ”Legal” is a broad spectrum that ranges from over-the-counter aspirin for any age with no ID at the convenience store to strictly-carded 21-and-over alcohol at the liquor store to seriously-restricted operating room morphine. So, sure, all drugs should be legal, but where they land on the spectrum is what matters. Heroin ought to be closer to the “operating room legal” and cannabis should be closer to the “alcohol legal”.
2. My God, What About the Children?!?
Starting with the basics, keeping drugs illegal is one of the best ways to keep drugs out of the hands — and brains — of children. We know three things here: First, children who don’t use drugs continually tell us one of the reasons they don’t is precisely because they are illegal.
No prohibitionist worth his salt will pen an op-ed without appealing to the safety of the children. It’s one of the few effective pieces of rhetoric they still have.
One quick bit of jiu-jitsu you can use on this one: “So, is it your claim that the only effective way we can protect children from marijuana is to imprison adults who use marijuana? If so, how is it that we reduced 12th grade lifetime drinking rates from the 90% range to around 75% and reduced smoking rates from 75% to about 40% without imprisoning any adults for smoking and drinking?”
Bennett cites some stats about perceptions of risk and social disapproval being the reasons kids don’t take drugs. So how is it that in the Netherlands, a place that socially tolerates and places little perception of risk on adult cannabis use, the rates of lifetime cannabis use are half that of American 12th graders and one-third that of American 15-year-olds? Sure, the kids who don’t smoke pot tell you they don’t because it is illegal, but what difference does that make among the two-out-of-five high school seniors who have?
Second, keeping drugs out of the hands of children is the best way to prevent drug addiction generally, as study after study has confirmed that if we keep a child drug free until age 21, the chances of use in adulthood are next to zero.
I guess I’m the “close to zero”; I smoked my first joint when I was 22 years old. But what Bennett hides is the fact that we aren’t keeping cannabis out of the hands of kids. Kids consistently rate cannabis as easy or fairly easy to get (ranging from 80% to 90%) and more than a quarter of kids say they can get it within a few hours.
3. We have enough problems with legal drugs; why add another?
Third, we don’t need to guess at hypothetical legalization schemes. Our experience with legally prescribed narcotics has already proven it, and we now have an epidemic. This, despite doing everything the theorists have asked, from oversight to regulation to prescription requirements.
In this case, though, we’re talking about things like OxyContin that are highly addictive, unlike cannabis. And couldn’t part of that epidemic be due to massive advertising by pharmaceutical companies that tout the pill as the answer to all life’s maladies? Or pharma reps that hand out free samples and encourage doctors to distribute them like candy? And in some cases, didn’t some of these opioid users get addicted because a doctor couldn’t prescribe a safer, more effective, non-addictive remedy because it’s Schedule I?
Regardless, Bennett’s point only makes sense in a fantasyland where the current policy of prohibiting marijuana has no downside. We’re not “adding another” legal drug, we’re recognizing that regulating cannabis reaps more benefit and causes less harm than prohibiting it. Speaking of those harms…
4. We must keep it illegal to keep it expensive!
Normalizing, de-stigmatizing, and legalizing illegal drugs lowers their price and increases their use. As a recent RAND study on California found, legalization of marijuana there would cut the price by as much as 80% and increase use from as little as 50% to as much as 100%. Just what California, just what our society, needs.
So is Bennett arguing here that only the high price of marijuana protects us from total destabilization of our society? Funny that he should be in favor of artificial price supports for street-corner dealers and Mexican drug gangs. A price cut by 80% in a regulated market means that what little black market dealing that would occur would have the tiniest of profit margins. You’d be as likely to see a big-time violent black market weed dealer under legalization as you’d find a big-time violent black market Budweiser dealer today.
As for twice the use, we don’t need to guess those results, because use was about twice what it is today back in 1978-1979. Oh no, we might have wars in the Middle East, expensive gasoline, crumbling schools, mass unemployment, inflation, ridiculous fashions, and horrible dance music… not like today.
5. We’re doing it for your own good!
As any parent with a child addicted to drugs will explain, as any visit to a drug rehab center will convey, those caught in the web of addiction are anything but free. And it is not because of their incarceration or rehabilitation, it is because of the vicious cycle of dependency, waste and brain damage addiction and abuse cause.
How about problem gamblers, Bill? Were you “anything but free” when you were caught in that addiction? How in the world were you free to say your “gambling days are over” in 2003 without the heavy hand of the state and the threat of force and prison to help you?
I don’t make light of the addictive nature of hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth, nicotine, and alcohol. But the fact that millions of Americans voluntarily stop using cannabis for weeks or months to pass a workplace pre-employment pee test shows cannabis isn’t terribly addictive.
6. It’s Not Your Father’s Woodstock Weed!
Let us make no mistake about this, either: Marijuana is much more potent and causes much more damage than we used to know. Today’s marijuana tests on average at more than 10% THC (the psychoactive ingredient). We are even seeing samples of more than 30% THC. This is compared to the relatively lower levels of THC most legalizing proponents were more familiar with in generations past (under 4% in the early 1980s, even lower in the 1960s).
Oh, so then you’d be OK with us legalizing the 4% THC cannabis, then? You were telling us it was terribly dangerous then, so it must be double super-duper dangerous now!
Here’s the thing, Bill; marijuana is not like the craps table. It’s not like the $1000 craps table that busts your bank account ten times faster than the $100 craps table. People smoke weed to get high. If they have 5% THC weed, they’ll smoke a joint. If they have 20% THC weed, they’ll smoke a quarter of that joint. When you consider the smoke is the only harmful part of pot smoking, smoking 1/4th as much is a good thing, no?
By the way, Bill, you’re revealing your ignorance when you claim “lower in the 1960s”, because the technology to test THC potency didn’t exist then.
7. It’s Really, Really Bad for Teenagers!
Chronic adolescent marijuana use has been found to be associated with “poorer performance on thinking tasks, including slower psychomotor speed and poorer complex attention, verbal memory and planning ability.” We are seeing study after study finding adolescent marijuana use responsible for “disrupted brain development” in teens. Worse, we are seeing more and more studies showing teen marijuana use linked to psychosis.
Have you ever seen the brain scans or checked the accident and fatality stats of a teenage binge drinker? They will show you far more damage than any pot smoking teen would. Again, you tell of this awful fate awaiting our children that requires locking up adults for pot, yet no such standard is required of alcohol? Why is that?
8. Nobody Really Goes to Prison for Pot
As for the high incarceration rates for simple marijuana use and possession, it is a myth. As government documentation actually shows, over 97% of sentencing on federal marijuana-related charges is for trafficking, less than 2% is for simple possession. Indeed, the only National Review authority with federal prosecutorial experience that I know of backs this point up: “Actual enforcement is targeted at big distributors. People who merely possess drugs for personal use well know they are substantially safe no matter what the statutes say.”
Federal charges. The vast majority of marijuana arrests and sentencing happen at the state level. Which leads me to wonder why the federal statutes still carry a one year and $1,000 misdemeanor penalty for simple possession of any amount? We don’t really arrest anyone for possession, so that’s why it is vitally important it remains illegal? How can marijuana be simultaneously so dangerous we must imprison those who supply it but so innocuous we rarely imprison (white) people who demand it?
Besides, the prison sentence isn’t the only consequence of a drug arrest. Drug convictions place you into second-class citizenship where you can be legally denied jobs, housing, assistance, education, and more on that basis alone. Also, understand that something as simple as keeping two strains in separate bags, owning a scale, or planting a single plant lands you in felony territory for “intent to sell” or “manufacturing” charges.
9. The Dutch / Californians / British / Coloradans Now Regret Tolerating Marijuana
Citizens are trying to put the genie back in the bottle, from Northern California (where residents have complained that medical marijuana has “spawned crime, drug cartels and teenage pot use”), to the Netherlands (where drug tourism, use by minors, and border trafficking has increased), to England (where apologies have been made for endorsing decriminalization in light of the subsequent growth of teen drug treatment needs), to Colorado (where easy access has increased demand, “made a mockery” of the legal system, and is increasingly endangering public safety).
California: Places with the greatest amount of medical cannabis acceptance also voted yes on Prop 215 to legalize marijuana.
The Netherlands: Use by minors has increased everywhere in Europe, even in the strict anti-cannabis countries. Drug tourism and border trafficking are the result of prohibition in the rest of the E.U., not liberalization in Holland (indeed, if Germans could get hash in Hamburg, they’d not visit Maastricht).
England: The growth of teen drug rehab admission for cannabis has to do with (as in America) the increasing use of “drug courts” and alternative sentencing that sends teens to rehab instead of 3 months to two years of jail.
Colorado: This state loves its medical cannabis law and is reaping millions in tax revenues, so much that the state actually has a medical marijuana revenue enforcement division. It’s not going anywhere, Bill.
10. If We All Unified Behind the War on Drugs, It Would Work!
We have an illegal drug abuse epidemic in this country and it has not been given enough attention. But the cultural messages, as much as the law, matter. When we unified on this, as we once did, drug use went down. When we let up, as we now have, use increases.
Bennett likes to think that the “get tough” policies of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s led to less drug abuse and the “touchy feely” policies of medical marijuana in the 1990s led to more drug use. However, note that cannabis arrests actually decreased 20,000 from the beginning of Reagan to the end of Bush I. Drug use also rose during the 1970s when Nixon was declaring “all-out war” on drugs and cannabis use rose even as Bush II was raiding medical marijuana states and using the same mandatory minimum sentences Reagan and Bush I used.
Drug use goes in cycles and has many factors that affect it. The question isn’t whether legalization will cause harm; it’s whether it will cause less harm than the prohibition that exists now. Since the Frank/Paul bill merely ends federal penalties for cannabis, states can still continue prohibiting it. Maybe a few of them legalize. Then those states can be the “laboratories of democracy” that Justice Brandeis theorized about and we can really determine which policy works better for the people.
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