Drugs: Mock Debate

A DEA manual on how to argue against legalization shows lack of imagination.


"Legalization opponents often have a hard time being heard," complains the Drug Enforcement Administration in its manual How to Hold Your Own in a Drug Legalization Debate. "This is a long and difficult effort we are undertaking to get our issues on the table to be heard."

The DEA's pose as the underdog in the drug-policy debate is hard to take seriously. But the fact that the agency feels a need to help supporters of prohibition counter the arguments for legalization suggests that ignoring or dismissing critics of the war on drugs is no longer a viable option. The 42-page debating manual reveals drug warriors scrambling to back up claims that have long been accepted as articles of faith.

The DEA wants to appear logical and reasonable, the better to help prohibitionists persuade the public. "Proponents of legalization," the manual says, "are generally well-prepared and credible people whose arguments, though compelling, are faulty." But the DEA betrays a certain impatience with people who refuse to get with the program: "For those engaged in the day-to-day work of the real solution to America's drug problem—reducing the supply and the demand for illegal drugs, as well as addressing the criminal activity caused by drug trafficking and use—taking time out to discuss legalization questions can be frustrating."

Torn between these two attitudes, the DEA can't quite decide how to portray its opponents. "Many who advocate legalization are attempting to 'normalize' the behavior of drug taking," it says. "Many are people who have tried drugs without significant adverse consequences. Others see potential profit in legalizing drugs and still others simply believe that individual rights to take drugs should be protected….[T]he legalization concept appeals to people who are looking for simple solutions to the devastating problem of drug abuse." Thus, in the DEA's gloss, critics of prohibition consist largely of druggies and would-be drug dealers. A few of these people seem to think there's some sort of principle at stake, but they're pretty simple-minded.

As this treatment suggests, the DEA manual makes only a half-hearted attempt at intellectual honesty. Its advice to defenders of the war on drugs can be summed up in two injunctions: 1) misrepresent your opponent's position and 2) blur important distinctions.

In the first category, the manual asserts that "a cornerstone of the legalization proponents' position is the claim that making illegal drugs legal would not cause more of these substances to be consumed, nor would addiction increase." I don't know of a single serious critic of prohibition who makes this claim. The use of the currently illegal substances would almost certainly rise if they were cheaper and easier to obtain. The issue is how big the increase would be and how much harm it would cause.

Similarly, the DEA says reformers "fail to mention that unless drugs are made available to little children, law enforcement will still be needed to deal with drug sales to minors." In reality, advocates of legalization tend to emphasize this point, lest they be accused of recommending that crack be sold to kids in candy stores.

Pace the DEA, reformers do not argue "that legalizing drugs would eliminate the black market." They concede that as long as sales are restricted to adults, an illegal market would persist. But they note that the problems associated with it would be much smaller.

In its discussion of the connection between drugs and crime, the DEA plays bait and switch: "Criminal activity would not be reduced as a result of drug legalization any more than gangster activity disappeared after the Repeal of Prohibition." (Emphasis added.) This is logically equivalent to saying that brushing twice a day will not reduce cavities, since putting fluoride in the water has not eliminated tooth decay.

In predicting how legalization would affect crime, it's important to distinguish among the various reasons why crime might be associated with drugs. The DEA, however, tends to throw them all together: "It is widely claimed by those advancing the cause for legalization that crime is largely committed by drug traffickers to protect their turf. Sadly, it is the experience of many local police officers that crime is committed not only because people want to buy drugs, but more often because people use drugs." Elsewhere the guide asserts that "most drug violence is committed by people under the influence of drugs."

The DEA seems to be suggesting that psychopharmacology is the main reason for the association between drugs and crime. But it does not offer any evidence on this point, aside from "the experience of many local police officers." That "experience" is contradicted by broader research. A study reported in the winter 1989 issue of Contemporary Drug Problems, for example, found that the vast majority of crack-related homicides committed in New York City during an eight-month period in 1988 grew out of black market disputes. Only one of the 118 crack-only murders was classified as psychopharmacological.

To bolster its argument that drugs and crime are inextricably linked, the DEA cites figures indicating that a disproportionate number of criminals use drugs and that crimes are often committed by people who have recently taken drugs. But these correlations do not prove that drugs chemically induce people to commit crimes. There are several alternative explanations.

First, since possessing illegal drugs is itself a crime, drug users are "criminals" by definition. Second, drug dealers are apt both to use drugs and to get into violent disputes with each other—a hazard of the black market. Third, addicts may commit crimes to support their habits. Fourth, people who break the law in other ways are also more likely to consume illegal drugs. Fifth, people who plan to commit crimes may "fortify" themselves beforehand (most commonly with alcohol).

Beyond confusing correlation with causation, the DEA fails to distinguish between drug use and drug abuse. It refers, for example, to "the social costs of increased drug use." But drug use needn't generate any social costs. Someone who drinks a cup of coffee (or coca tea) in the morning and drinks a bottle of beer (or smokes a joint) after work is not imposing costs on anybody. Why should he be thrown in with the cokehead who screws up at work or the drunk driver who runs over a pedestrian?

Because it refuses to acknowledge that some kinds of drug use are preferable to others, the DEA ignores the crucial role of substitution in determining the results of legalization. To the extent that heavy drinkers become heavy marijuana users, or crack users turn to cocaine powder, they and the people close to them will tend to be better off. The DEA is blind to such possibilities, insisting that legalization can only "compound our problems."

The DEA also shows a lack of imagination when it tries to envision how drugs would be produced and sold in a legal regime.

"If U.S. farmers were given subsidies to produce drugs (as they are given subsidies for tobacco)," the manual warns, "the U.S. taxpayers would be responsible for paying for these subsidies. If foreign sources of drugs (opium or coca) were allowed to supply the raw material, an elaborate system of tariffs and trade preferences would need to be established." And then there is "the cost of collecting revenues associated with drug sales"—who would pay for that?

The 18 questions that the DEA expects will reveal "the shallowness of the legalization concept" actually reveal the shallowness of prohibitionist thinking: "Should all drugs be legalized?…Will they be limited only to people over eighteen?…Who will sell drugs? The Government? Private companies? And who is liable for damages caused by drug use and the activities of those taking drugs?…How will a black market for cheaper drugs be controlled?…How will absenteeism and loss of productivity be addressed?…Will legal drugs require prescriptions?" And so on. Anyone who has given the issue serious thought will be able to answer these questions readily.

The litany serves not so much to stump critics of prohibition as to keep them on the defensive. "Always remember," the guide advises, "the burden of proof is on the proponents of legalization." Lucky for the DEA.