The Emerging Consensus About the Need for Debate


Last month I noted that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar had said "it's time for debate" about marijuana legalization. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, New York Gov. David Paterson says much the same thing:

You can really document what the excesses of alcohol have done on the roadways of our country, and you can't really do that with marijuana. I don't know if I would want to support the legalization of marijuana. But I'd certainly be open to a conversation on the subject.

The online version of this article does not include that quote, which I got from Tom Angell of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Angell's group is featured prominently in a recent New York Times column that may also signal a more antiprohibitionist climate of opinion: Nicholas Kristof, a foreign affairs specialist and a newcomer to the issue, lists three major consequences of the war on drugs: "we have squandered resources"; "we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons"; and "we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad." He concludes that "if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better." He suggests one or two states might "experiment with legalization of marijuana, allowing it to be sold by licensed pharmacists, while measuring the impact on usage and crime." Kristof (who joins a list of newly reform-friendly pundits that includes Jack Cafferty, Juan Williams, and Kathleen Parker) also notes that Sen. Jim Webb, another sitting politician open to legalizing pot, wants Americans to reconsider "our nation's broken drug policies."

If that reconsideration looks anything like this recent CNN debate between former drug czar Bill Bennett and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, prohibitionists should be worried. Bennett emphasizes that drug-related harm is not limited to black-market violence (a product of prohibition) and thefts committed by addicts desperate for drug money (a problem greatly exacerbated by prohibition's impact on drug prices); it also includes the harm caused by drug use itself. To illustrate that point, he cites all those drug users who get arrested and all those pot smokers in treatment (mostly because they've been arrested).

Predictably, Bennett points to data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) that indicate illegal drug use is unusually common among arrestees. As I noted when that report came out, this fact does not necessarily count in favor of prohibition.

When Bennett was head of the ONDCP, there was a similar flurry of media attention to criticism of the war on drugs. But a few things are different this time around: Fear of drugs is no longer near the top of the concerns that Americans mention to pollsters; public opinion seems increasingly favorable to reform, at least when it comes to marijuana; several sitting politicians with national profiles have joined the call for a debate; and the president himself has called the war on drugs "an utter failure" (albeit before he ran for president).