A Little Respect

The surgeon general shows it's OK to talk about drug legalization.


On December 7, after giving a speech at the National Press Club, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was asked about drug legalization. Her brief response was rambling and barely coherent. But the gist of it was that legalization would reduce crime and should be studied.

The White House slapped down this tentative suggestion almost immediately. Elders was privately rebuked, and the administration unambiguously rejected her call for further research. "Basically, it's not going to happen," presidential spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said. "The president is firmly against legalizing drugs, and he is not inclined in this case to even study the issue."

Several prominent Republicans condemned Elders. "Americans must be wondering if the surgeon general is hazardous to our health," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles said Elders should be fired. California Gov. Pete Wilson seconded the motion. "Dr. Elders is willing to relegate the youth of America to the perils of addiction and enslavement," he declared. "Her proposal is unconscionable and an insult to the courage and determination of every narcotics officer who has instead chosen the hard way and the right way to fight drugs."

Despite all this predictable huffing and puffing, the surgeon general's comments and the response to them suggest that some progress has been made in the public debate about drug policy. For one thing, it would have been unthinkable even a year or two ago for an administration otficial to flirt with the possibility of legalization. Elders sensed that she could get away with what she said, and ultimately she will. Clinton is not about to follow Nickles's recommendation.

Even more telling was the way the news media treated the Elders story. The coverage was remarkably kind; no one pointed out, for example, that her answer to the legalization question was basically a series of non sequiturs. Some of this gentleness may stem from a reluctance to be hard on a black woman appointed by a Democratic administration. But it was also clear that the press accepts legalization as a genuine issue; the close-mindedness of the drug warriors simply will not fly anymore.

Consider the Los Angeles Times story on Pete Wilson's attempt to exploit the Elders flap. "In attacking Elders," the Times reported, "Wilson exaggerated her position on the issue, suggesting that she advocated legalization when she actually limited her remarks to urging further study of the controversial matter." The Times also noted that two members of Wilson's Council of Economic Advisers, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and former Secretary of State George Schultz, agree that legalization should be considered. And so do "some conservatives such as writer William F. Buckley." (The story might have added that Wilson himself used to support light penalties for marijuana possession, before he decided that all talk of reform was beyond the pale.)

Things have changed considerably since 1988, when Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke called for a national debate on drug-policy reform. Legalization is certainly not popular nowadays, but it is, as George Will put it on This Week with David Brinkley, "discussable" That status comes with the perception that respectable people—people like Friedman, Schultz, Buckley, and Schmoke—are in fact discussing it. Their calm, rational arguments have helped bring home the point that the war on drugs is not just unwinnable but enormously counterproductive, that it kills people, undermines their security, takes away their property, and erodes their rights.

All of the panelists on the December 12 Brinkley show took legalization seriously. Will, who called it "a terrible idea," nevertheless said he doesn't think "we ought to raise such a ruckus that people won't expand the range of the discussable in this country." Sam Donaldson, who declared himself "an agnostic" on the question of legalization, noted the futility of trying to keep drugs out of the country by arresting traffickers. Cokie Roberts explained two ways in which prohibition feeds crime: by creating a black market in which rival gangs fight over turf and by filling prisons with drug offenders, forcing the release of predatory criminals. She even acknowledged the existence of "the libertarians in this town," who "are very much for legalizing drugs."

In 1988, when I wrote an op-ed piece advocating legalization for my hometown newspaper, where I was working as a reporter, the editors were so worried about the impression it might create that they attached a disclaimer at the beginning declaring that my opinion was "contrary to that of the paper's editorial board." So far as my father was concerned, I was the only person on earth with such views. But gradually he became aware of the Friedmans and the Buckleys, and today he sees things differently. He doesn't support legalization, but he is willing to talk about it.

This shift has taken place across the country. On radio talk shows, the callers who support prohibition are by now familiar with at least some of the arguments for legalization. For the most part, they have gotten past the mindless bluster ("We can't do that! That would mean surrender in the war on drugs!") and are actually engaging in constructive debate. They often acknowledge, for example, that legalization would reduce the incentive for any given addict to steal, since drug prices would be much lower, but argue that theft would not decline overall because the number of addicts would rise.

Even a die-hard drug warrior like New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal, who has produced some of the most hysterical prohibitionist propaganda in recent years, may have learned a thing or two from the advocates of reform. True, his column in response to the Elders controversy, titled "Surrender on Drugs?," is full of nonsense. (For instance, he trots out the old myth that crime is a direct consequence of drug use.) But Rosenthal nevertheless responds to the arguments for legalization. He even concedes that "legalization might cut the number of drug pushers killing each other or by-standers killed by bullet-spray." Unfortunately, he then adds that "by this logic, armed robbery should be legalized"—which indicates that Rosenthal has not quite grasped the distinction between consensual and nonconsensual crimes. Still, this is progress, of a sort.