Tom Diaz

Are Drug Legalizers Smoking Dope? A Range of Strong Opinions on What to Do

In Corruption, Crime, Mexico, politics, Transnational crime on May 7, 2009 at 9:09 pm
Should This Be Legal?  And What Else?

Should This Be Legal? And What Else?

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has done what many politicians in Washington only do off-the-record and preferably alone in a sail boat thirty miles off-shore:  suggest a national debate about legalization or decriminalization of some currently illegal drugs (in this case, marijuana).

The subject is percolating, perhaps because of the hurricane of drug violence battering Mexico.  Mark Kleiman wrote a long piece in The American Interest two years ago that is worth reading now.  Here is an excerpt:

…the first step toward achieving less awful results is accepting that there is no one “solution” to the drug problem, for essentially three reasons. First, the potential for drug abuse is built into the human brain. Left to their own devices, and subject to the sway of fashion and the blandishments of advertising, many people will wind up ruining their lives and the lives of those around them by falling under the spell of one drug or another. Second, any laws—prohibitions, regulations or taxes—stringent enough to substantially reduce the number of addicts will be defied and evaded, and those who use drugs in defiance of the laws will generally wind up poorer, sicker and more likely to be criminally active than they would otherwise have been. Third, drug law enforcement must be intrusive if it is to be effective, and enterprises created for the expressed purpose of breaking the law naturally tend toward violence because they cannot rely on courts to settle disputes or police to protect them from robbery or extortion.

More recently, Moises Naim  wrote a short, provocative article titled “Wasted” for Foreign Policy magazine in which he stated:

As a result of this utter failure to think, the United States today is both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy.

I was curious what thoughtful people think about our drug policy and its results.  So I sent the link to a bunch of serious people I know.  I would estimate that about half replied.  (Some no doubt thought that the better part of a career is not putting any views about drugs in writing.) I assured my correspondents that I would not attribute their remarks.  So no names are attached to any of what follows.  But the diversity of their views is impressive, at least to me.  (I made only a few minor edits to correct misspellings and the written equivalents of “you know” and “uh…”):

Health professional

This parallels an article in The Economist a few months back, which made the case that alcohol prohibition entrenched the mafia into US society and that the global drug lords are a modern version of the ‘untouchables’.

The worldwide shortage of Morphine should be included in any analysis of Afghanistan’s heroin industry, though it’s seldom mentioned.

Scholar at a Defense Institute

In general I think that we have to continue with some level of drug trade suppression, but that if we define it as a war it will never be won….The drug war has to be divided conceptually according to the various drugs because they are so distinct in terms of source, shipment variables and toxicity…

Legalization or degrees of permissiveness in use are generally bad ideas in spite of my tendency to believe in the power of the free market.  This is because of the power of the free market.  Although the government could make heroin use legal, for instance, it could not keep people from suing the makers and distributors of such a substance in tort, thus forcing it back to a black market anyway, etc.

In a society wherein cigarettes are being made illegal slice by geographic slice, it is tough to envision a successful movement to make more dangerous substances legal. Additionally, the drug trade fuels other organizations, most of which are bad, so suppression is not just about keeping a kid in Kansas safe, its is about Chavez not having quite as much money with which to screw us.  More or less there it is in a nutshell.

Former Senior Federal Law Enforcement Official

Our government should have been spending far more money for demand reduction for many years, and most anyone you talk to in DEA will agree with that statement.  However, the author alludes to legalization as the answer, and I could not disagree more.  The worst period in our nation’s history for drug abuse and addiction was the 30-40 year period after our Civil War.  One in every 200 Americans were addicted to cocaine or heroin/morphine/opium, and far more were abusing one or more of those drugs.  Those drugs were unregulated and could be purchased off the shelf of any drug store in the country.  ‘Legalization’ didn’t work then and I don’t believe it will now.  The Netherlands’ parliament is now routinely debating the success of their lax drug policies/laws, after they’ve experienced continually rising crime rates and declining quality of life in their city parks, etc.  The bottom line—you can’t control the actions of people under the influence of powerful stimulant and depressant drugs; people simply don’t act responsibly while under their influence.  That’s why there are countless examples of cocaine, meth, GHB, PCP, etc. addicts shooting their next door neighbor or siblings, because they thought they were going to kill them.

Legalizers will often say that alcohol prohibition didn’t work, so drug prohibition will never work.  The numbers of Americans treated for alcoholism and liver disease decreased significantly during the prohibition years, as did the numbers of alcohol related highway deaths.  The vast majority of Americans who use alcohol, do not abuse alcohol.  When I mow the lawn on a hot summer day, I thoroughly enjoy a cold beer or two when I’m done, but I do not drink those beers to alter my behavior.  When my wife cooks my favorite Italian pasta dish, I enjoy complementing the meal with a glass or two of red wine.  I do not drink the wine to alter my behavior in any way.  However, those who use the drugs I mentioned earlier, or any other illicit mind altering drugs, including marijuana, are doing it for one reason and one reason only—to seek a sense of euphoria and ultimately an alteration of their behavior.

No responsible nation has ever decriminalized drugs that did not eventually re-criminalize them, because they experienced skyrocketing addiction and abuse rates, workplace accidents, highway deaths, insurance rates, etc.; at the same time experiencing significant decreases in school equivalency/efficiency test scores, workplace output, etc.  And what drugs would we legalize, and who/what would regulate their manufacture (to pharmaceutical standards), marketing, distribution, taxation, etc.?  The federal government (you’ve got to be kidding me)?  Will we legalize PCP, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, GHB (the date-rape drug), ecstasy?  How about 3-methyl fentanyl, a synthetic form of heroin 1,000 times more potent then heroin?  Do we allow the user of cocaine hydrochloride to ‘crack’ it up on the kitchen stove with basic household products?  By the way, what’s the age limit we attach to drug use?  Is it 21?  Is it 18?  And do we really want the traffickers, after we legalize drugs, to suddenly prioritize their focus on our fellow citizens under the designated legal age—our kids?

The reality of the situation is that we do a pretty damn good job of keeping a lid on our drug problem here in the U.S.  We did not experience over 6,000 drug related deaths on our streets last year; we did not have over 200 drug related beheadings in the U.S. last year; we did not have our Deputy Attorney General arrested for taking multi-hundred thousand dollar payoffs from drug lords; we did not have to throw our military into the fight domestically because our federal, state and local law enforcement community had become so corrupted by drug cartels that they could not be trusted; etc.  This should at least be considered as one of the ways we measure success against drug abuse and trafficking in our country.  There are somewhere between 40% to 50% fewer Americans abusing illicit drugs today than in 1979 at the height of the most recent era of drug abuse in our country.  If some medical research team had reduced the number of cases of diabetes by 40% to 50% since 1979, someone would be getting a Nobel prize.

Finally, we’re not winning the War on Domestic Violence.  Should we legalize it?  We’re not winning the War on Racism?  Should we legalize it?  We’re not winning the War on Corporate Fraud.  Should we legalize it?  We’re not winning the War on Child Pornography.  Should we legalize it?    The only thing we accomplish by legalizing drugs, is that we provide our kids and other citizens with greater access to cheaper, more potent and powerful mind-altering, addictive substances.  Don’t we have enough problems to deal with?

Lawyer in criminal division of a federal law enforcement agency

Very interesting – it does seem clear that the war is a failure, and we are losing.  The new ONDCP Director (Kerlikowski) will focus on demand reduction as well, but it certainly seems reasonable to explore ways to take the vast criminal profit out of the drug trade.  Unfortunately, no one can say that politically – though, who knows, maybe Arlen Spector will lead the charge as a Democrat?

Personal friend, retired from government, lives in Colorado

I totally agree with this article. In fact, I believe that failed US policies are largely responsible for the Mexican drug wars and their spillover here. If we 1) legalized marijuana and 2) had the same gun policies as Mexico itself, where it is very hard to buy guns, then much of the drug-fueled violence would cease. But what are the chances that either of those things could happen? Even Obama seems afraid of the NRA!

Retired gang investigator, California

…seems logical, but a few things I observe:  Yes, we are losing the war on drugs, just like Viet Nam, and in some respect Iraq.  We have no real political spine for wars.  Our congress has no general consensus on either.  The ideological lock that is occurring in Congress prevents anything meaningful from passing.  I agree we need prevention and treatment, but we also need border control and to toughen the import routes.  Narcotic crimes are not victimless, we have a lot of violence associated with it, and legalizing it is not an acceptable answer.  We have many murders not related to narcotics, in fact, more than those that are.  Should we legalize the murder of wives by irate husbands, or soiled daughters like the Taliban advocates?  The obvious answer if NO, absolutely not.  Let us seal the borders against the importation of human traffickers and narcotics.  It could be done with minimal legislative change, and with the support of Congress.  That is unlikely, so we will probably be having this same argument 10 years from now.

Congressional staff member

I’ve long believed that the “war on drugs’ (another asinine “contribution” to our national lexicon from the guy who gave us the suffix “gate”) has been more than a colossal failure; it has inflicted great harm on the nation, and on other nations (see e.g. Mexico at the moment).  Would the drug gangs in the US and Mexico (and Colombia, Afghanistan, etc.) have that much money and influence if RJ Reynolds sold grass in the corner bodega for $5 a pack?  Hardly.  What would happen to the shooting war?  When was the last time someone got wasted over a shipment of bathtub gin?  When was the last time someone went blind drinking bathtub gin?  Do our kids even know what bathtub gin is?  Prohibition made local gangs into the modern mob, and we’ve done the same with the war on drugs.  Public opprobrium, and the war on drugs lobby, which includes everything from prison industrial complex to the guys who make those idiotic “DARE” t-shirts, are substantial impediments to a more rational policy.  It is also the case that many illegal drugs are extremely harmful.  The only question for policy makers is whether the current legal regime is the best, or at least the least bad, way to deal with those harms.  Decades of experience tell us no.  We can’t even get a consensus for treatment on demand, or guaranteed treatment for people ready to get clean.  I had the experience in [New York]  of trying to get junkies who showed up in my office looking for treatment.  Even calling from an Assembly office I couldn’t get them in.  Our way of treating these people is with prison.  We also make the richest guy in the neighborhood the pusher.  That may be self-satisfying for some people, but it’s not really a solution. We get the problems associated with drug use, plus a failure to help addicts, and we create significant deleterious associated problems.  Not terribly helpful.

Prominent criminal defense lawyer

…we pay a tremendous price for the legalization of alcohol—drunk drivers, alcoholism, etc. I am not advocating abstinence, but in reality we suffer greatly for legalization.  We will pay a much higher price if drugs are legalized.

I agree the war on drugs has not been won, but continuing to fight the war is better than giving up.  The “war” has saved lives, other social ills in our society and will continue to so even if we never achieve anything close to total victory.  If we legalize say even marijuana it will become a slippery slope to much more.  I am more concerned about what I believe will be a drug pandemic in our country— is far more important than angst caused in Afghanistan, etc.

Moreover, if we give up—what does it say about our resolve in other areas when the going gets tough?  Another black hawk down maybe of which Ben Laden took note.

If when we can not fully control something, we surrender, what a sorry state that will be.

Retired senior federal law enforcement official

1. Just like with wine allow every family to have two pot plants for personal use
2. Provide drug addicts amnesty with free drugs
3.Increase penalty for all drug traffickers to death – send special ops teams to other countries to bring ‘em back dead or alive if needed.

I wonder what you think?

  1. A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)


    The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
    We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

    Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

    Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

    John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

    There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
    It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

    Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

    The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
    These new slave plantations are not the answer!

    For more information please visit: or email:
    To sign the petition please visit:


    William Thomas
    National Community Outreach Facilitator
    The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons
    P.O. Box 156423
    San Francisco, California 94115

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