Should drugs be legal? — with David Boaz (1995) | THINK TANK

Should drugs be legal? — with David Boaz (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. The war on drugs is now eight years old, but
are we winning? Some say that we need a new approach that
could solve the criminal, economic and health woes of the drug epidemic. How? Legalize drugs. Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, Diana Gordon,
professor of Political Science and Criminology at City College of New York and author of
“The Return of the Dangerous Classes, Drug Prohibition and Policy Politics,” John Walters,
president of the New Citizenship Project and acting drug czar in the Bush administration,
and Peter Reuter, professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and author of
“Disorganized Crime, the Economics of the Visible Hand.” The question before the house, should drugs
be legal? This week on “Think Tank.” Drugs are everywhere today. Some, like alcohol, are legal, but most like
pot, crack, smack, PCP, LSD, MDMA, uppers and downers are not. America’s streets are awash and the violence
that surrounds drugs, in particular the emergence of crack cocaine in the 1980s, presented a
new and dangerous menace. President Bush: The greatest domestic threat
facing our nation today is drugs. It’s turning our cities into battle zones
and it’s murdering our children. Ben: In an effort to reduce addiction, the
federal government got tougher on traffickers on land, sea, and air. To stem the flow of drugs, they also enacted
tough mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders. At the local level, police stepped up arrest
of people who sell and use drugs. All this caused the number of inmates jailed
for drug offenses to rise dramatically. In 1972, judges sentenced 3,400 drug offenders
to our federal prisons. By 1993 that number had risen to 43,500 with
140,000 more in state prisons. In that same time, marijuana use declined
after peaking in the late ’70s. Cocaine use declined as well, but both drugs
are still widely available. But with all the billions that we have spent,
drugs are still making it to the marketplace where there are plenty of buyers. Should we try a new approach? Legalization proponents argue that interdiction
has failed. They further argue that crime would be reduced
if legalization occurred both by freeing up jail space for violent offenders and by eliminating
the profit motive from the drug trade. Okay, first question, the obvious one, should
we legalize drugs? David Boaz? David: Absolutely. Drugs are bad, but the drug war is worse. First, in a free society, adults ought to
be able to decide what they’ll put in their own bodies. And second, the drug war is causing these
skyrocketing levels of crime in a lot of major cities. We’ve had murder records set from Washington
to Richmond to Fresno the last few years. A lot of that is drug-related and legalization
would solve some of that. Ben: Diana Gordon. Diana: Well, I would definitely scale down
the drug war. I’m not ready, with the exception of the hemp
products, marijuana and hashish, to recommend complete legalization. I think we don’t know what the consequences
for abuse would be. And I’m concerned that we overstate…that
the legalizers overstate the effects on violence in the inner cities that we would have if
we did legalize. Ben: Okay. Peter Reuter. Peter: I, essentially, agree with Diane Gordon. I do not think that legalizers have made a
compelling case. On the other hand, the alternative is not
continuing what we’re doing now. And, unfortunately, I think the question focuses
just on extremes. Do we be very tough the way we’re trying to
be now, or do we legalize everything? And the answer is almost certainly in the
middle ground. And like Diana, I don’t think it’s all or
nothing with respect to the legal status of psychoactive drugs. We have legalized alcohol really as a matter
of history. We have prohibited essentially all other psychoactives. And I think that there are decisions one could
make about some psychoactives such as marijuana, change into legal, maybe prohibit alcohol,
and leave all this alone. And I just think the question is the wrong
question. Ben: John Walters. You say I asked the wrong question, Peter. Peter: Yes. John: Well, I obviously don’t believe we should
legalize drugs. I think the issue of crime is much to do with
the psychoactive effect of the drugs on individuals that make them more violent, that cause worst
consequences of behavior. Places where we test in major cities, people
involved in homicide, assault, domestic violence incidents, 50% plus are on drugs at the time
of the offense, when they’re tested when they’re arrested. It’s not just the business of selling drugs
and the criminal activity that causes violence. It’s the effect of the drug. And alcohol has a terrible effect here, too. I mean, the question in part is you’ve got
100 million drinkers in the country use alcohol once a month. Based on what we can tell, 50 million smokers. I think if we had to do it over again and
we’re trying to drive down the abuse in those categories, why do we want to add to that
legalization which will almost certainly increase things like crack consumption, heroin consumption,
and lead to a larger number of casualties than we have now? Peter: Then nobody cares much about marijuana. I think it’s really important to put that
in the discussion of the form, the proposition to the form that John’s made. Look, legalizing Marijuana might reduce…there
is some research evidence, it might reduce alcohol consumption. We have a serious alcohol problem. We might be better off with a slightly more
serious marijuana problem and substantially less serious alcohol problem. Ben: Now why would legalizing marijuana cut
alcohol usage? David: It turns out that as alcohol became
less available to high school seniors with the imposition of the higher drinking age
in the late seventies, there’s some evidence that that switched people to marijuana. It is arguable, an argument is all that it
is at this stage, that if we made marijuana more available, there’d be more use to marijuana
and less of alcohol. Neither of them is a desirable good to consume,
at least in large quantities, but we may be better off with more marijuana and less alcohol. The point is to make it substance-specific. Ben: David Boaz, let me ask this question. If we legalize drugs completely, as you say,
wouldn’t we make it easier for young, innocent kids to become addicted to drugs, and then,
as John says, they would become more likely to become criminals? If you could buy a drug the way you buy a
six-pack of Coca-Cola, wouldn’t more people buy it? David: Well, nobody’s talking about making
it as legal as Coca-Cola. We’re talking about making it as legal as
alcohol, which is to say it’s gonna be sold in regulated stores. It’s gonna be sold only to adults, things
like that. Currently, cocaine is sold on school playgrounds. I think it’s sold on school playgrounds more
than alcohol is and that’s because there’s no legal distribution system. So the distribution network for cocaine is
entirely illegal, therefore, it’s easier to take it to the schoolyards and the playgrounds. I would like to see… Ben: You would also legalize heroin? You would legalize heroin? David: Yes, for adults. And I understand that when you legalize it
for adults, you are not gonna completely keep it out of the hands of kids. But we’re not keeping it out of the hands
of kids now. We’re arresting 13-year-old drug dealers. So that suggests to me that prohibition doesn’t
stop kids from using it. I don’t think you would have an increase in
underage use. You’d probably have some increase in adult
use, and at least for marijuana, as Peter says, that might actually be a good thing
depending on what they gave up. Ben: John, what do you think about marijuana
legalization? John: Well, let me just say two things here
because I think the premises of the discussion should be brought out. One, part of the premise seems to be here
that we haven’t made any progress. We can’t make any progress. We’re drowning in this problem and therefore
we ought to take a different tack. That’s just not true. The information that we have in surveys are
not as reliable and as perfect as we’d like, but what the evidence we have shows us is
overall drug use in this country declined by 50% from the peak that we were able to
measure in 1979. That’s all illegal drugs. Cocaine use dropped by almost 80% between
1985, its measured peak in 1992. We’ve made enormous progress. A lot of that has to do with prevention and
changing attitudes, but it makes a difference what the institutions and what intellectual
and political leaders say about this in changing those cultural attitudes. My argument is that’s an enormous cultural
success. If we could reduce dropouts, illegitimate
births, HIV infection by 50% to 80%, we would consider that an unbelievable achievement. David: Yes, but how good are those figures? John: We’ve done that with drug use and I’m
not as optimistic or as sanguine about marijuana use as Peter. Depending on how you measure addiction, marijuana
can be…marijuana users can form the single largest group of addicted people. Whether you use criteria of measures of use,
how you change your behavior, other kinds of patterns to classify someone as an addict,
marijuana can be the single most addictive of the illegal substances. And the other factor that I think you’ve got
to mention here is people want to turn to treatment. You have to look at the problems of treating
hardcore users. We do not have very reliable methodologies,
once people get in trouble with drugs, of taking hardcore users and moving them out
of drug use into a productive life. You could go down this path, you may not be
able to get back. Diana: I think it is certainly true that marijuana
is not nearly as dangerous as some of the legal drugs. And I think it’s untrue that it is as addictive
as all the other illicit drugs, certainly not as addictive as either tobacco or alcohol. But I don’t think… Peter: I don’t think you can sustain that
about alcohol. I mean, the capture rate for alcohol, that
is, a percentage of people who use alcohol regularly and become heavy…dependent users,
it’s probably 10%, 15%. I think that for marijuana it may be somewhat
higher than that. Diana: You may be right. Ben: But marijuana does not cause the physical
devastation that either drinking or smoking does. Peter: The word “addiction” is the problem
here. Look, people dependent on marijuana have a
problem. They don’t have a problem as serious as either
alcohol dependence or cocaine dependence in terms…so both the physiological complex
and… Diana: Or tobacco independence, if we’re talking
mortality rates. David: Certainly in terms of mortality rates
either. So yes, I’m not arguing that marijuana legalization
would lead to more marijuana dependence. I’m just not sure that that’s a comparable
problem on the individual level as alcohol dependence. David: I think we ought to be careful about
saying that we’re making progress, too. These statistics, these polls are very dubious. You ask people if they’re engaging in illegal
activity and you’ve got a lot of public pressure against that illegal activity, maybe there’s
a tendency to start under-reporting more than you used to. When we look at some things, we can see crime
rates, murder rates, prices of drugs. It doesn’t seem to me we see much, and the
amount that the federal government is spending on these things, it doesn’t seem to me we
see a success there. John: Well, I think if you look at the data
about testing of arrestees, the percentages in some areas, especially where when enforcement
was intensified, went down. You still have violent crime. You have a legacy that may be partly generated
by drugs, may be generated by other factors. I don’t think we know enough to be specific
about causal sources. But in terms of spending, I would like to
point out that despite… Look, $1 billion is a lot of money. I haven’t been in Washington in too long,
so long that I forgot that. But during the entire period from the ’70s,
even including the ’90s where the drug budgets started to approach $13, $12, $13 billion,
the federal government spent more on NASA in every one of those years than it spent
on drugs. Ben: Diana Gordon, you have made the case
that this whole war on drugs is driven by politics. Is that your view? Diana: Yes. I think that the drug problem is really a
kind of vessel for a lot of kinds of concerns, discontents on the part of the public, ambitions
on the part of the politicians. I think it serves, the drug problem, serves
many purposes. And that in… David: But isn’t it a real problem? Diana: Of course, it’s a real problem. Of course, it’s a real problem. David: You’ve got people going rat-tat-tat
killing people. Diana: But I think it’s such a real problem
that I don’t think it can be solved by drug policy alone. I think both the prohibitionists and the legalizers
make the mistake of thinking that with either much tougher law enforcement or complete legalization
you’re going to solve the problems of drug-infested communities. Drug-infested communities are also communities
with many other problems. And I would be in favor of legalization if
we we’re coupling it with a program of social reconstruction for those communities to deal
with the sources of abuse. Ben: But legalization just of marijuana and
hashish, not of the others. Diana: Well, I think if we could combine it
with a kind of a real program for the cities that addresses the other factors that John
has acknowledged are probably present in these arrestees who were also on drugs, then I would
favor legalization for all drugs. Peter: Can I rescue the standing of the drug
warriors? Not particularly friends of mine, but I just
don’t think it’s fair to say that this is simply a vessel. No doubt, things have been loaded onto the
drug war that do eight other political agendas. But, I mean, from my dealings with people
who have been leading warriors, they believed that this was a serious problem for which
the only response that was appropriate in the short run was tough enforcement. And that’s a very broad…there’s very broad
support for that in Washington. Now, in part, you know, Washington leaders
felt they had to do something in the face of this large problem. The only thing the public believed in at the
time was tough enforcement and they did it. Ben: John, let me ask you one question. You are a hawk on this stuff, put people in
jail. There is a case that I hear made among some
criminologists that putting a drug dealer in jail doesn’t mean that you eliminate that
market share. You simply have another person springing up
who will take his sale. So what on earth is the sense of all these
big mandatory minimums and everything if you’re really not getting rid of the problem by putting
these guys in the slammer? John: Let me also correct what I think is
a misunderstanding about exactly what the emphasis was in at least during the Bush administration. There was never the approach that we simply
do enforcement. We tripled federal spending on treatment. There is a problem here because there’s a
problem in the way the bureaucracy delivers money in this as in other areas. And the number of treatment slots didn’t increase
during that period. The state and local government spent on that. The biggest single increase in activity was
I think prevention, which is hard to measure in dollars, but people got energized and started
talking to young people, creating workplace prevention programs. Society changes attitude in a number of ways
that federal budgets don’t measure that were crucial to changing the patterns of use here. The issue of enforcement is simply a matter
of, let me rescue common sense on the enforcement side, where we have the single biggest problem
today, is crack addiction. It’s three-fifths of the money spent on cocaine. So if you wanna talk about legalization, you
don’t want to talk about crack, let’s remember we’re gonna have a huge drug market and drug
activity continuing. But in terms of crack addiction, the problem
here is, if we’re in the suburbs today where the drug problem is not very extensive, if
you have an open-air drug market in the suburbs, there’s no question. You close it down, you arrest the people,
you keep them away from kids and your neighbors. It’s only in the inner cities where, for some
reason, our society has tolerated open-air drug markets. You wanna see what drug legalization looks
like? Go to an open-air drug market. David: That’s completely wrong. Completely wrong. John: The drugs are cheap. They’re free. They’re available. And that is where you have the greatest number
of casualties. The casualties of cocaine and heroin today
are 80% in the inner city. They’re 60% black as far as we can measure
them, and they’re the poor. And that is where we’re not doing a job. We’re not doing a job at delivering services
on a variety of areas, but we’re also not doing the job of simply making the streets
safe. Diana: [Crosstalk 00:19:15] proportion. David: John, that’s like saying that the way
to look at what alcohol legalization is like is to look at the Al Capone Gang. Obviously, Al Capone was what happened under
prohibition. And the open-air drug markets in the inner
city and the Rayful Edmonds gang in DC, that’s what happens under prohibition. Under legalization, a drug market would look
like a liquor store run by a mom-and-pop. Now, you may not like that, but it ain’t Rayful
Edmonds. It’s not an open-air inner city drug market. That’s what you get under your system. Ben: But you would get more drugs legal in
circulation that kids would get because mom-and-pop could go in and buy it legally without risking
arrest. They’d bring it home, and the kids… David: Well, I disagree with more kids getting
it. I think, through the illegal system of funneling
it directly to the playground, you’re actually getting more kids into it. But more drugs in circulation? Yes, I think that’s possible. But people would know what they were buying. John: Yeah, but the fact though… Ben: Diana [SP]. Diana: A lot of the violence that we are concerned
about that is connected with the drug problem is really the violence of drug transactions
gone wrong. David: Dealer killing dealer. Diana: Or dealer preparing himself for the
arrival of the cop or something that’s an accident. Peter: Suppliers and dealers is different. Diana: A kind of accident. And it seems to me that legalization would
at least give you control over that kind of violence. Now I’m not…one of the reasons I’m a little
skeptical about legalization is that I don’t think net violence in the inner city communities
which are plagued with so many other problems is necessarily gonna go down. Where are those small retail dealers going
to get the income that they now get from selling drugs? Arguably, mugging and carjacking are more
directly likely to produce violence than drug transactions. Ben: Let me ask this to the legalizers. Isn’t there a historical analogy at work here? As I understand the history of drug use in
the United States, in the early part of the century, we also had a drug epidemic, a cocaine
epidemic. And what we did was go into a full-scale “war
on drugs,” including interdiction and prevention and movie stars and everything else saying,
“Don’t use drugs. ‘Reefer Madness,’ whatever it was.” And in point of fact, drug use went way down
and it worked, the war on drugs, and then it lay sort of at low levels for a couple
of decades. And then it came back up. Doesn’t that model say that we should do it
again? John: I think “Reefer Madness” was a political
hysteria. I don’t think there was a big cocaine epidemic. If you look at the history of the United States,
you don’t see the kind of hysteria about drugs that we’ve had over the past 10 years or so. You refer to the drug war in the opening comments
as having lasted eight years. I mean, you can look at it as having lasted
20 years, 30 years since Nixon, 75 years since these things were started. And at no point have we been able to eliminate
drug use. We tried [crosstalk 00:22:20] and that I didn’t
work. Ben: No, no. But it went way down, I guess, in the ’20s
and ’30s, as I understand. Diana: But you’re assuming that it went way
down because of campaigns and because of law enforcement, and that’s not at all clear. There were larger forces, you know. Ben: Such as? Diana: Well, you send the most vulnerable
groups of young males off to war, for example, and notwithstanding that you could get a lot
of heroin in Vietnam, you couldn’t get that in World War Two, there are lots of… Peter: I mean, it’s important to see these
as epidemics. I mean, that’s the usual phrase. We talk about drug epidemic. Epidemics tend to burn themselves out. Maybe policy being tough about drugs, changing
attitudes about drugs, will shorten the epidemic, make it less intense. But, basically, what we’re looking at are
cycles that look like cycles of epidemics. Crack is a drug which affects regular users
pretty quickly, and the crack epidemic ended fairly rapidly in the sense that new…you
didn’t get a lot of new users after about 1987. People who become dependent on crack are still
with us and maybe with us for another 20 years. Our drug problem is not the problem of lots
of new users as it was in the early ’80s. It’s the problem of a couple of million people
who are addicted in last… Ben: So we are making progress? John is right in that sense. Peter: We are making… I’m not saying anything about… David: But it’s not the war. What Peter is saying is that the word gets
out. PCP didn’t last very long. People heard PCP is bad stuff. Then they heard crack and they could see that
crack was bad stuff. So it wasn’t the war on drugs. It was observing the use of crack. Diana: The street smarts. Peter: I mean, you’re more definite about
it than I’m willing to be, but, clearly, a big influence here is simply changing attitudes,
the end of an epidemic of initiation. What’s peculiar about drug epidemics is people
don’t get cured. They stay…lots of them stay addicted for
a long time. Most of our heroin addicts are literally the
same people who are addicted to heroin in the mid-1970s. Ben: What about the argument that’s made… I mean, Jesse Jackson makes it that you have
two forms of cocaine, crack and regular cocaine, and that the police arrest and get very tough
on crack on blacks in the inner city, which is the drug of choice, and kind of lay off
the suburban whites who use cocaine. Is that valid? John: Well, there’s been a kind of, I think,
misunderstanding of the history of harsher penalties about crack. When the harsher penalties were passed in
the mid-’80s, it was not as clear that crack was an inner city problem. It was clear that crack was much more dangerous
and addictive and the effort was to protect Americans. And I think today you have to ask yourself,
if you want to be less forceful in protecting Americans in the inner city where the crack
epidemic is focused today among addicts, what are you saying about your concern for black
Americans who are the principal victims in the inner city? Today, the problem is crack, if you talk about
the drug problem and the money and the violence, and that problem is focused in the inner city. It’s not cocaine powder, it’s crack. And if you don’t deal with that, the rest
of this is kind of nibbling around the edges. And the problem is very few people, David
maybe an exception, are gonna say, “We wanna make crack as available as Jack Daniels.” Ben: Okay, we have time just for one brief
statement from each of you going this way about your principal idea in this whole argument,
starting with you, John. One or two sentences. John: We’ve made a lot of progress. We need some leadership today. We’ve lost that leadership. But the answer to this is to follow through,
and particularly by individual citizens talking to their children. Young people who don’t use drugs by the time
they’re 18 are unlikely to use them later. Ben: Cut the demand of it. Peter. Peter: Remember, the policy is a small part
of what affects this problem and that our choices on drug policy are not at the extremes
of what we’re doing currently in legalizing. And we should be doing a lot of work on figuring
out where we wanna be in the middle of that. Ben: All right. Diana? Diana: We should scale down the drug war so
that we don’t get distracted by it from the real sources of serious drug abuse. Ben: Which are root causes. Diana: Which I think are poverty, inequality,
poor education, all of those things that liberals site. Ben: David. David: John is right. Parents, teachers, ministers should tell people
about the problems with drugs, but the legal war, the military criminal war on drugs is
failing. There’s no light at the end of that tunnel
and we should legalize drugs for adults. Ben: Okay. Thank you, John Walters, David Boaz, Peter
Reuter, and Diana Gordon. And thank you. As you know, we enjoy hearing from our audience. Please continue to send your comments and
questions to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, Northwest, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via electronic mail at
[email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production
of BJW Incorporated in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible
for its content.


  1. This is either a free country or it isn't… So, The government has the right to dictate what you can or can't do with your own body? Hmmm…. I don't know what you call that but it isn't freedom. The so called elites of this country think that the public is unable to think for themselves. The political class of this country is constipated. =full of shit…. I have to watch this again later because of all the BS in the video.

  2. The alleged statistics involve assumptions of cause and effect. The debate is interesting from an historical perspective, but beyond that, this discussion is useless.

  3. What we are doing now isn't working. Here are my three alternatives to put to a vote:

  4. OMG! I'm an alumnus of CCNY-class of 2010!

    Anyway, legalize but strictly regulate and continue to socially discourage recreational drug use.

    Drug use should be a public health issue and not a criminal one.

  5. I'm sure there is some sort of balance to be had in this debate, but even 24 years ago we couldn't figure this out. Often I've thought the lessons from prohibition should have taught people that making a substance illegal only gives rise to criminals like the mob coming in power. Perhaps something like legal smoke shops, but with decent amount of regulations would prove more effective?

  6. Legalize pot (possibly psychedelics), set a weight threshold for each hard drug that determines personal use vs. trafficking. Decriminalize possession of any amount less than that so it becomes a civil offense and a fine- but there should be a three strikes type rule so the 3rd or 4th time you are cited for personal use amount it becomes a criminal offense or forced rehab. Keep penalties for trafficking relatively harsh but not draconian (unless a repeat offender).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *