"Republicans once again should take a strong stand against drug use and legalization," writes former Bush 41 staffer Peter Wehner in the Washington Post. "Virtually no lawmaker in either party is doing so."
If you're like me, you probably want the next paragraph to explain why no one in Washington, D.C. is railing against legalization. But Wehner doesn't even take a crack at the question. Instead, he shuffles through a list of talking points that held sway during his tenure in the Bush 41 White House, but which were pretty much dead by the time "Got the Life" was retired after 65 days on Total Request Live. (That was a joke about the 90s.)
And yet Wehner would have you believe that legalization can be stopped in its tracks using these arguments; they "simply need to be deployed." So let's deploy them:
1.) "The vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs started by using marijuana."
This is a reverse version of the old gateway claim, which Wehner likely didn't use in its original form because we now know that alcohol is more of a gateway drug than marijuana. So instead of saying that the vast majority of marijuana users go on to use harder drugs, Wehner says that most people who use hard drugs started with marijuana. That's like saying the vast majority of mass shooters started by playing Duck Hunter; or, that the vast majority of sex workers started by playing with Barbies. The claim is only meaningful if there's a verifiable causal relationship between the two activities. In this case, there's not: There were 18.1 million regular marijuana users in the U.S. in 2011 (which means they used it in the 30 days prior to being surveyed) 1.4 million regular cocaine users, and 281,000 regular heroin users. The causal relationship between marijuana and hard drugs is very, very weak.
2.) "Drug legalization will lead to more cases of addiction, which shatters lives."
Even under prohibition we can't stop people from developing chemical dependence on drugs. What we do have control over is how we treat the small number of people whose chemical dependence leads them to commit crimes. Currently, we consign the bulk of these addicts to prisons or homeless shelters, where drugs are plentiful. One of the best arguments for drug reform--as evidenced by Portugal's decriminalization strategy--is that there are more holistic and humane ways to help these people.
It's also worth mentioning that the addiction rate for most illicit drugs is lower than people realize: 23 percent for heroin, 17 percent for cocaine, and 9 percent for marijuana. Alcohol, with a prevalence for dependence rate of 17 percent, is more like cocaine; and tobacco, with an addiction rate of 32 percent, is worse than pretty much everything.
3.) "One of the main deterrents to drug use is because it is illegal. If drugs become legal, their price will go down and use will go up."
In 2011, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 18.1 million people reportedly used marijuana, but according to the FBI, only 658,000 people were arrested that year for marijuana possession. The same disparity exists for harder drugs: Roughly 2 million people reportedly used heroin or cocaine in 2011, but only 260,000 people were arrested for possessing heroin, cocaine, or one of their derivatives. This tells us not only that illegality is a weak deterrent, but that making it an effective one would require arresting millions more people than we currently do. Millions.
As for the price of legal pot: The news coming out of Washington state and Colorado suggests that excise taxes will be high, which means the price of legal pot will be close to black market rates. If I thought Wehner's biggest concern is that legalization would result in a free-for-all, I'd tell him not to worry one bit. As Mark Kleiman (who is consulting Washington state on their regulations) put it: "[A] legal cannabis market should be run to protect public health and safety, not to maximize revenues." That's likely what we'll see in every state that taxes and regulates pot.
But it appears that Wehner actually sees drugs as a front in the culture war. Bad simply because they're bad, regardless of what the science says. That's the only explanation I can come up with for why he spends roughly half of his alotted op-ed space arguing that
Drug legalization...would send an unmistakable signal to everyone, including the young: Drug use is not a big deal. We’re giving up. Have at it.
[D]rug use is wrong because it is morally problematic, because of what it can do to mind and soul. Indeed, in some liberal and libertarian circles, the “language of morality” is ridiculed. It is considered unenlightened, benighted and simplistic. The role of the state is to maximize individual liberty and be indifferent to human character.
I don't know if Wehner thinks parents in Colorado and Washington who voted to legalize marijuana want their children to "have at it," but that's essentially what he's saying. He's also saying that it doesn't matter if legalization and decriminalization are successful. I don't suggest the GOP follow his lead.