Drug Policy

RIP Arnold Trebach, Who Helped Make Opposition to the Drug War Respectable

The American University professor called for "drug peace" at a time when both major parties were committed to ever-escalating violence.


Arnold Trebach, who died last week at the age of 92, started the Drug Policy Foundation in the heat of Ronald Reagan's war on drugs. It was the same year that Joe Biden, a Democrat who is running for president this year as a criminal justice reformer, wrote the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which prescribed new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and created the notorious weight-based sentencing distinction that treated crack cocaine as if it were 100 times worse than cocaine powder.

It did not seem like an auspicious time to be urging a reconsideration of drug prohibition. Three years later, when President George H.W. Bush announced yet another escalation of the war on drugs while waving a bag of crack on national television, Biden, then a Delaware senator, delivered the Democratic response. "Quite frankly," he said, "the president's plan's not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand." Calling drug use "the No. 1 threat to our national security," Biden said "what we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam."

In this context, with Democrats outbidding Republicans in their zeal to deploy violence against people with politically incorrect pharmacological tastes, it took a certain kind of chutzpah—a good kind—to start an organization dedicated to the proposition that there might be a more tolerant approach. But Trebach, a middle-aged lawyer and professor of justice at American University, figured someone should be talking about downside of this bipartisan chemical crusade and suggesting an alternative he called "drug peace."

Even before he started the Drug Policy Foundation, Trebach's skeptical treatment of the war on drugs in the courses he taught prompted a telegram to the president of American University. "Close your doors immediately," it said. "Do not continue to corrupt any more American youth." The idea that questioning current policy was tantamount to corrupting "American youth" suggests the level of debate that was typical at the time.

"We must convince people that it is respectable, it is rational, it is decent, to oppose current drug laws," Trebach told Reason in 1987, the year he published The Great Drug War. "The major thing I want to do is replace hate with love or intolerance with tolerance. The drug law does not deal with some of the major problems connected with drug abuse—crime and corruption. The law only makes the corruption worse, makes the crime worse, and does not help the simple addict. I know of no addict who has been helped by being treated as the enemy."

In The Great Drug War, Trebach highlighted the cruel, perverse, and invasive consequences of using force to prevent people from altering their consciousness in ways politicians did not like. The fallout included widespread drug testing, humiliating border searches, civil asset forfeiture, imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders, police corruption, undertreatment of pain, misinformation about the relative hazards of drugs, coercive "rehabilitation" programs like Straight Inc., vain and destructive efforts to stamp out drug production in other countries, and a running battle between domestic marijuana growers and cops determined to eradicate their crops and livelihoods.

"We are losing the great drug war because our leaders…have declared all users of illicit drugs to be 'the enemy,'" Trebach wrote. "Thus, they refuse to distinguish between drug use and drug abuse, between responsible drug use and compulsive addictive use." They have "therefore declared at least 50 million Americans to be enemies of the state."

The book's subtitle originally touted Radical Proposals That Could Make America Safe Again, although Trebach stopped short of recommending the legalization of all drugs. In the 2005 edition, which did call for a broad dismantling of prohibition, the subtitle was changed to Rational Proposals to Turn the Tide, a revision that may have been motivated by marketing considerations but also reflected a change in public opinion that Trebach helped bring about.

The percentage of Americans who favored legalizing marijuana had by that point begun an upward trend that would lead to majority support within a decade. Meanwhile, politicians were beginning to question the mandatory minimum binge that politicians like Biden had promoted. Two years later, Biden himself would introduce a bill aimed at eliminating the unjust and irrational distinction between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine, which had led to strikingly unequal treatment of black drug offenders.

Trebach's D.C.-based organization—which in 2000 merged with Ethan Nadelmann's Lindesmith Center in New York, an amalgam now known as the Drug Policy Alliance—played a seminal role in encouraging that evolution in thinking by bringing together antiprohibitionists from across the political spectrum. As my former Reason colleague Virginia Postrel noted in 1989, the Drug Policy Foundation's conferences offered fresh perspectives on drug use and addiction that went beyond "medicalization," which would treat consumers of currently illegal substances as patients rather than criminals. These were gatherings where libertarians influenced by Thomas Szasz and Milton Friedman mingled with public health specialists, left-leaning critics of the carceral state, and conservatives troubled by the myriad ways in which prohibition undermines law and order.

Writing for Reason in 1988, by which time he had turned fully against prohibition, Trebach argued that even the "worst-case scenario" of substantially increased addiction under legalization would be better than the disastrous consequences of the war on drugs. "Everything we know about the dynamics of drug use suggests that the real scenario will be even better," he wrote. "If we legalize the currently illegal drugs, teach temperance and moderation regarding all drugs, and treat addicts and cancer patients alike with compassion and sound health care, the whole topic will be reduced to a mid-level and, hopefully, boring issue of national health policy."

We have not yet reached the point where drug policy is boring. But discussion of the subject is notably calmer, more compassionate, and less reflexively punitive than it was in the 1980s, when Trebach dared to question the aggressive, indiscriminate approach favored by Democrats and Republicans alike. The ongoing collapse of marijuana prohibition—combined with the shift embodied by Biden, who now says he wants to abolish the mandatory minimums and death penalties he once championed—suggests that Americans are thinking about drugs a little more rationally than they did a few decades ago. That's no small achievement, and Trebach's advocacy, as he hoped, helped make opposition to the war on drugs respectable.

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  1. Not a fan of the ladies, are ya Trebach.
    – Sir Connery

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  2. >>aggressive, indiscriminate approach favored by Democrats and Republicans alike

    blame Tipper Gore.

    1. Tipper Gore: the prototype for the modern day “Karen.”

      1. yes! she was everywhere and all the moms wanted to be her.

  3. both major parties were committed to ever-escalating violencegovernment.


  4. Marijuana is one thing, we’re already on the way towards legalizing it and taking it off the table. But you could legalize methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, tomorrow, and the same violent cartels would be the producers tomorrow. Unless you’re going to sanction massive domestic production and distribution of these drugs, that’s not going to change. You will also still have the same people in prison in the United States, just not for drug possession. They’ll be in for committing other crimes because of their drug addiction.

    1. California, Oregon, and Colorado have put tremendous effort into getting licensed, ostensibly non-cartel growers producing product for licensed, ostensibly non-cartel dispensaries. There were certainly enough US-based growers to do this. There are apparently still people who grow for the illegal market, in the states where it’s still illegal and also to be sold more cheaply in the states where it’s legal. But anecdotally lots of US growers did leave the industry, the permitting process was expensive. I agree, we would have to have a similar thing with supply chains for the other drugs if we expected to cut out the organized crime aspect. But that is not impossible. “Fair Trade Heroin” etc. The idea that organized transnational crime would disappear overnight is not realistic. Maybe fifty years ago when the groups were small.

    2. Most of the modern problems with drugs did not start until they were outlawed.
      For a good history of the subject, see the first several chapters of the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs in the Schaffer Library of Policy. For additional information on how this problem got started, see the other references under Historical Research on Drug Policy.
      The drug laws were based on ignorance and nonsense from the very beginning. Most people assume the laws were passed to protect public health. In fact, that was not the purpose and they rejected every objective analysis of public health that came along. In fact, just doing an objective analysis would earn someone big trouble from the Feds. For one good example, see Rufus King’s book “The Drug Hangup” in the Schaffer Library.

    3. FYI, heroin is diacetyl morphine. The only difference between it and ordinary hospital morphine is that heroin is three times stronger by weight. One grain of heroin equals three grains of morphine. Otherwise, they are completely medically interchangeable.

      There is no justification for heroin being completely illegal while morphine is used routinely in medicine. The reasons for that go back to 1924 when Congress panicked and did something dumb. You can find the story in the first several chapters of the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs.

      The drug laws never did make any real sense. Assuming they are the best thing we could do, or were even intended to do some real good, is a mistake. At no time did anyone ever really examine issues of public health.

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