Magazines: The War Over the War


The debate about the war on drugs has focused on the wrong questions. The arguments center on which drugs should be legalized or decriminalized, and what these reforms would mean. On the side of legalization is a small band of judges, sociologists, journalists, and lobbyists; on the other side is drug czar William Bennett, the Conan the Barbarian of politics, flailing his mighty broadsword against a massive army of liberals, wimps, and traitors.

But because the debate over drugs tends to focus on legalization rather than federal antidrug policies, the discussion is largely about what hasn't happened rather than what has. While I'm in favor of as much legalization as possible, I would prefer that advocates of drug reform aim their words at Bennett, not at each other or at the blue and empty sky.

Bennett and his policies should be at the center of the drug-policy debate for two reasons. First, as the neoconservative sociologists have taught us, social science can determine whether existing policies have worked, but it says very little about whether new policies will be effective. Every discussion about drug legalization not derived from history or the experience of other countries is speculation. Every program William Bennett institutes is fact.

Second, the burden of proof should always be on the people who advocate a particular government program. The Pentagon, for example, has to show that the United States still has enough enemies to justify a $300-billion budget. William Bennett should be required to tell us why Congress should give him the $10 billion he wants to battle drug dealers.

Why haven't Bennett's policies been thoroughly analyzed? One reason is the dearth of hard information on drug use in the United States. Most drug surveys rely on self-reporting, and few people will accurately tell an employee of the federal government how many drugs they consume. (Data for teenagers are even more questionable, since many of these surveys ask about illicit drug use in the presence of the respondent's parents.) Data about how much illegal drugs cost are still less reliable.

Even the addictive power of controlled substances is open to debate. As Dartmouth Medical School neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga notes in an interview in the February 5 National Review, if one accepts National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates as accurate, all cocaine users currently constitute 2 percent of U.S. adults, whereas cocaine addicts constitute 0.25 percent of the population. Gazzaniga estimates that only 10 percent of people who try an illicit drug become addicted to it.

For the past six months, I have been searching for someone not receiving government cash who would argue in a magazine article that Bennett's policies have been effective in reducing drug use. The nearest I've come is James Q. Wilson's "Against the Legalization of Drugs" in the February Commentary. Drug warriors loved the piece; George Will devoted a column to it two months in advance of publication, unprecedented in the magazine world.

What is interesting about Wilson's article is what is left out. Wilson does not mention William Bennett at all; the only analysis of federal drug policy is from the 1970s. Wilson also avoids the marijuana question entirely, referring his readers to Harvard scholar Mark Kleiman's book on the subject, without mentioning that Kleiman favors decriminalizing marijuana.

Wilson argues that heroin, cocaine, and PCP should remain banned because legalization would mean millions of addicts who would goof off at work, beat their children, and commit crimes. Furthermore, in Wilson's eyes, drug use is not a "victimless crime" because "society is not and could never be a collection of autonomous individuals. We all have a stake in ensuring that each of us displays a minimal level of dignity, responsibility, and empathy."

Thus Wilson's objections are based on science and philosophy. Implicit in Wilson's argument is the notion that illegal drugs are somehow instantly and permanently addictive. Here is his comparison of crack and heroin:

"Crack is worse than heroin by almost any measure.…Regular heroin use incapacitates many users, especially poor ones, for any productive work or social responsibility.…By contrast, regular cocaine use leaves the user neither helpless nor harmless. [Using cocaine once] generates a powerful desire to repeat [the experience]. If the drug is readily available, repeat use will occur. Those people who progress to 'bingeing' on cocaine become devoted to the drug and its effects to the exclusion of almost all other considerations—job, family, children, sleep, food, even sex."

This is sloppy analysis. One wades through Wilson's prose, hoping for some number, some fact, to save the reader from drowning in rhetoric. What does Wilson mean by "regular use" of cocaine? How many people "progress" to cocaine addiction? How large were the experiments Wilson cites? Are any of the studies he quotes from the 1980s? We do not know, and given the haziness of his evidence, Wilson is unpersuasive.

As for Wilson's philosophical doubts about legalization, someone should report him to Allan Bloom, for all Wilson does is revive the hoary Rousseauian notion of the "general will." How, precisely, does Wilson propose that I simultaneously aid thousands of addicts across the country? Taxes? Government regulations I played no part in writing or enforcing? Does Wilson believe that bureaucrats always represent the will of the people?

Wilson is a serious man, and his arguments deserve extensive analysis. Most foes of legalization, however, are as credible as Ernest "Hang 'em High" van den Haag, who in the April 1 National Review argues that we should send all illegal drug users to "prisoner-of-war camps," where they would spend a year repairing America's roads and bridges. Van den Haag doesn't explain how much this would cost, but if he wants to reduce expenses, there are plenty of recently unemployed police in Eastern Europe with decades of experience in handling political prisoners.

So much for the defenders of the drug war. The best articles about drug use have been critiques of current policies. I recommend the Gazzaniga interview in National Review for a good summary of what scientists currently know (and don't know) about drug use. Gazzaniga is particularly useful in explaining to the non-scientist what addiction means and how the term can be easily misconstrued.

Two extensive profiles of William Bennett appeared at the same time. You've read Jacob Sullum's cover story in the March issue of REASON, but if you want to read more about Bennett, I suggest "The Two William Bennetts," by Michael Massing, in the March 1 New York Review of Books. Sullum's and Massing's pieces complement each other; Sullum is better on Bennett's intellectual roots, while Massing prefers to show the drug czar in action. Massing's most telling insight into the corporate culture of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is that reporters are routinely requested not to mention the agency's office address for national security reasons!

Gerry Fitzgerald, in the January/February Common Cause, does a good job of showing how drug laws affect the nation's criminal justice system. Fitzgerald is best at describing how mandatory sentences clog the courts. In New York state, for example, Nelson Rockefeller successfully lobbied for a law imposing harsh mandatory sentences for drug use, including a life sentence for possessing a pound of heroin and a minimum of 15 years for possessing an ounce of marijuana. The result: Without pleabargaining, cases took 10 to 15 times as long to complete. The lengthy delays cut in half the conviction rate for drug possession or dealing. Moreover, the people who were convicted tended to be minor dealers or users; major traffickers frequently received lifetime probation sentences in exchange for turning state's evidence.

In the May 21 New Republic, Charles Murray argues that legalization of drugs is not the main issue. What matters more, he feels, is that schools, neighborhoods, and offices should have the power to be as drug-free as they wish to be. Murray argues that deregulation and choice are the keys to accomplishing this. For example, he advocates tuition vouchers to enable parents to pick schools with the right disciplinary approach to drugs; allowing landlords to screen and expel tenants without government interference; and permitting employers to fire chronic drug users readily.

Murray's best arguments are against those who would deter drug use through stricter law enforcement. He argues that such deterrence is possible in theory, but its costs are prohibitive. To punish even 20 percent of drug users, he says, would mean arresting twice as many people as were arrested for all violent crimes, burglaries, and car thefts in 1988.

The two major anti-drug-war organizations would not forgive me if I didn't review their publications. The Drug Policy Foundation, founded by American University criminologist Arnold Trebach, publishes a bimonthly Drug Policy Letter. At times the newsletter is interesting; a recent issue, for example, was devoted to an extensive review of every government report that has recommended decriminalizing or legalizing drugs. But too often the publication is full of self-congratulation; in one issue, all the judges and elected officials who have joined the legalizers praised each other for being politically correct. (The foundation's address is 4901 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, #400, Washington, DC 20016; the newsletter is $50 a year.)

The National Drug Policy Network is an organization devoted to circulating as much information as possible about the debate over illicit drugs. It publishes Newsbriefs, a biweekly clipping service. The May 1 number, for example, reprints two McNeil-Lehrer transcripts, a confusing speech by the mayor of Bogota, an article from U.S. Catholic favoring legalization, and 20 op-ed pieces from a recent Los Angeles Times series on drug reform. If you need to read every article on the drug debate, Newsbriefs will amply satisfy your craving ($50 a year from the National Drug Policy Network, 2000 L Street, NW, #702, Washington, DC 20036).

Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.