Drug War

Bill Bennett Takes Drug Policy Advice From Bruce Springsteen

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Responding to Pat Robertson's recent call for marijuana legalization, former drug czar Bill Bennett says "regulating marijuana like the way we regulate alcohol (or cigarettes) will only result in the increased use and abuse of marijuana, particularly among youths." We know this, he says, because "the late, great political scientist, James Q. Wilson," said so. Furthermore, "arguing that adding a dangerous substance to the legal marketplace will reduce its usage is to renounce all common sense."

Did Robertson argue that? Not in the New York Times interview that Bennett quotes or in his widely cited comments on The 700 Club, his CBN show. Instead the evangelical broadcaster and former Republican presidential candidate focused on the injustice and wastefulness of locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses. He went a little overboard in claiming that a marijuana user "could get 10 years for possession of a joint," but his general point about the harshness of mandatory minimum sentences was correct. Bennett responds by noting that people guilty only of possessing marijuana account for a small percentage of state prisoners, without addressing the penalties for other drugs or the humiliation, inconvenience, expense, and ancillary punishment associated with pot busts, which totaled about 854,000 in 2010.

Robertson said he was troubled by the double standard for marijuana and alcohol. "If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally," he told the Times, "then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?" Bennett, despite his Ph.D. in philosophy and his books about virtue, has never presented a cogent moral argument to justify this distinction. Instead he says things like this:

Why should we promote the legalization of a substance that can irretrievably harm our children's brains and makes our citizens less intelligent, less productive and less safe? Open and unrestricted drug use cannot coexist with a free, safe and productive society.

In addition to the empirical assumptions embedded in those sentences, there is a value judgment: Bennett believes that we should aspire to live in a "safe" society and that it is the government's responsibility to help us achieve that goal, whether we like it or not. It seems to me that we can have a free society, or we can have a safe society, but not both.

In addition to his scary political philosophy, Bennett comes equipped with irrelevant data:

Among cannabis users in treatment in the United States, 80.5% are not married, 90% have obtained an education of 12 years or less; 25% are unemployed and 46% are not in the labor force (of which 55% are students). Of the cannabis users who entered treatment services from 2000 to 2008, nearly a quarter report psychiatric problems.

I bet alcoholics in treatment (or winos on the street) would show similar patterns of dysfunction. What does that tell us about the typical drinker? Absolutely nothing. Likewise, "cannabis users in treatment" can hardly be treated as representative of pot smokers in general.

Bennett says Robertson is wrong to call the war on drugs a failure, because drug use, as measured by government-sponsored surveys, sometimes goes down. It also sometimes goes up. How do we know that either change can be attributed to government policy? The beauty of these numbers is that they can always be used to justify more spending on drug law enforcement. If they go down, that shows the drug war is working and therefore deserves greater financial support. If they go up, that shows we need to redouble our efforts. Similarly, Bennett closes by declaring that "surrendering, like Robertson suggests, is not an option."

What a great all-purpose response to criticism of any government program. Has it failed to reach its goals? Surrendering is not an option. Has it squandered public resources? Surrendering is not an option. Has it arbitrarily interfered with individual freedom? Surrendering is not an option. Has it unjustly imprisoned millions of people? Surrendering is not an option. Has it eroded civil liberties and undermined respect for the law? Surrendering is not an option. Has it fostered corruption, violence, and disease? Surrendering is not an option. 

Tired of arguing with dogmatic prohibitionists? Guess what.

[Thanks to Max Minkoff for the tip.]