No sooner had George Bush declared a “war on drugs” and appointed William Bennett to lead the charge than voices were raised to question the entire enterprise. To be fair, some of those voices—such as economist Milton Friedman and, with less assurance, William F. Buckley, Jr.—have been advocating legalization of drugs for many years. Other voices, reflexively hostile to almost any initiative of a Republican administration and most particularly hostile to the assertive Mr. Bennett, have joined in. The modest funding for the war, combined with the supposedly tried-and-failed strategies proposed for waging it, demonstrate, they claim, that the administration is not really serious. It is not serious because “everybody knows” that the war cannot be won. At the same time, it is very serious about appearing to wage a war on drugs because everybody also knows that fighting drugs is good politics.
That the war cannot be won and should therefore be called off is only one of several reasons offered for legalizing drugs. Those of a libertarian bent, on both the right and left of the political spectrum, argue that the government has no business preventing people from taking the poison of their choice. That is the “prochoice” position on drugs. A big argument for legalization is that present policy wastes billions of dollars in futile efforts to enforce the law against drugs, while at the same time corrupting the criminal justice system and filling prisons with people guilty of nothing more than what Robert Nozick has called capitalist acts between consenting adults. In this connection, there is even a revival of 1960s talk about drug use as a “victimless crime.”
We are also told that the logical way to break the link between drugs and crime is by taking the big money out of producing and peddling drugs. When drugs are legal, cheap, and readily available, the dealers will be out of business and the addicts will not have to rob and steal to support their habit. In any case, it is said, most people will use drugs responsibly, just as they use alcohol responsibly. The legalizers contend that there is a “base population” that is prone to drug abuse, and the rate of addiction among users would remain constant, whether or not drugs are legal. Admittedly, there may be many more addicts if drugs are legal (nobody knows how many more), but that would be balanced by the social benefits of a sharp reduction, maybe even elimination, of drug-related crime.
Moreover, this reasoning continues, taxes on government sales of legal drugs would produce massive revenues for drug education and treatment. Since drugs are readily available “everywhere” at present, the difference with legalization would be that the government, rather than the criminals, would benefit from this lucrative enterprise. The legalizers usually acknowledge that drug addiction would continue to have a disproportionate impact upon the poor and the black, but that, even some conservatives are now saying, is a consequence of the conditions of poverty from which people seek pharmaceutical escape. There is also more alcoholism among the poor, they observe, but almost nobody is calling for the reinstatement of prohibition.
These, in brief, are the key arguments offered for legalizing drugs. (Readers who want to examine them in further detail might look up “The Federal Drugstore,” the cover article in National Review of February 5, 1990. Perhaps the most cogent article on the other side is “Against the Legalization of Drugs” by James Q. Wilson in the February, 1990, issue of Commentary.) By no means are all the arguments for legalizing drugs fatuous. Some of them, if put to the test in practice, might turn out to be right; the question is whether we should risk putting them to the test. Here we will give but a short response to the arguments already mentioned, before turning to several considerations that have been shortchanged in the current debate.
It is said that the war on drugs cannot be won. The answer is that nobody knows for sure. Apparently as a result of high cost and social pressure backed up by law, there has already been a significant reduction in drug use and abuse over the last ten years. If the 1970s attack on heroin is a precedent, it would seem that large battles can be won, if by “winning” we mean that the problem can be contained and the number of victims minimized. It is said that criminalizing drugs violates individual freedom of choice. Most Americans, fortunately, are not ideological libertarians. They believe that laws have an important part to play in ensuring safety and decency, both personal and public, and they are not at all convinced that the Constitution protects shooting heroin or smoking crack. As for those who say drug use is a victimless crime, it is to be feared that they have little acquaintance with the neighborhoods where drugs are rife, and little concern for the thousands of families and children, born and unborn, that are crippled and destroyed.
Whether we are wasting money in criminalizing the drug trade depends, as mentioned, on what we think has been and can be achieved. Certainly we are spending a lot of money, about $11 billion per year by most estimates. No doubt drug money plays a part in corrupting law enforcement, but there are criminals who will try to pay for immunity from any law, which is no good reason to rescind laws. The answer to corruption in law enforcement is better law enforcement. That present practice is dangerously overcrowding prisons may mean that we have to build more prisons. It should also mean that we explore alternatives to conventional prisons, such as using retired military facilities for both punishment and programs of rigorous training aimed at reform. Admittedly, the effort to reform criminals has a long and disappointing history, but nobody has come up with a very good alternative. And young people in particular can be induced to get their lives together, especially in the context of military-like discipline.
It is said that the availability of cheap and legal drugs would break the link between drugs and the street crime that plagues our cities. That seems highly doubtful. Whether in heroin’s state of reduced inhibitions or cocaine and crack’s state of hyper-aggressiveness, addicts are likely to do crazy things, including criminal things such as stealing, mugging, and robbing. There are many uses for easy money other than spending it on drugs. There is no serious dispute that legalizing drugs would increase the number of addicts, and we expect the increase would be dramatic. Barring some unlikely change in human nature, most young people, offered an intensely pleasurable experience at low cost and no legal risk, would be sorely tempted to do drugs. Of those who give in, a certain percentage will become addicts, and thus we will have multiplied the number of teenagers in whom youth’s tenuous inhibitions against anti-social behavior would be dangerously relaxed. That does not strike us as a very smart way to reduce behavior that results in misery for others and, too frequently, self-destruction for the young people involved.
Legalizers typically make much of supposed analogies with alcohol, which is legal and readily available. Why shouldn’t we treat drugs the way we treat alcohol? The similarities between today’s debate and the 1920s debate over repealing prohibition are pronounced. Knowing what we now know about the social and personal costs of alcohol abuse, many Americans might conclude that repeal was in fact a mistake. Reinstituting prohibition, however, is not now on offer. There are several things to be said about the supposed analogies between drugs and alcohol. The user of heroin, cocaine, crack, or PCP (angel dust) is by definition comparable to an alcohol abuser. Both drugs and alcohol may alter consciousness, but the purpose of drug use is to induce a high, to enter into a chemically induced self-absorbing experience, to escape from the every day. Someone who drinks for that purpose is, by common consent, an alcohol abuser.
Except for those who have a drinking problem, it would not occur to us to say that someone “does alcohol” in the way that people “do drugs.” Unlike drugs, and despite all the problems surrounding its abuse, alcohol is part of our civilizational tradition. From antiquity to the present, people have rejoiced with the psalmist that God made “wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104). Social mores are more or less firmly in place that alcohol is to enhance fellowship, hospitality, and the celebration of communal bonds. It is well understood that when alcohol is used as drugs are typically used, for inward tripping and escape from reality, this constitutes alcohol abuse. But, even if one is not persuaded of the significant differences between alcohol and drugs, an obvious question remains: Given all the personal tragedies and social costs of alcohol abuse, why on earth should we multiply such tragedies and costs by legalizing drugs?
It is objected that we are being “inconsistent” in our treatment of alcohol and drugs. Consistency is a small part of wisdom in the making of social policy. There was no moral principle that required the legalizing of alcohol. It just happens to be what, for numerous reasons, we did, and what was done probably cannot be undone. In the absence of any principle requiring it, and for numerous reasons against it, we have similarly decided, at least to date, not to legalize drugs.
Legalizers claim that a change in the law would produce funds for containing the resulting problems through education and treatment. Most Americans likely share William Bennett’s skepticism about the potency of education in persuading young people to forego intense pleasure, especially when such pleasure is cheap and legal. There is good reason to believe, for instance, that much-touted programs of sex education in the schools have increased, rather than decreased, routinized rutting among teenagers over the last two decades. Of course kids should be told, in as many ways as possible, that drugs are bad. But, given the general confusion between what is legal and what is moral, they are less likely to be persuaded if drugs are made legal. As for the treatment of addicts, experts agree that effective treatment is usually connected with coercion, with treatment that is legally mandated. Nobody has explained how we are going to mandate treatment for people who are doing something perfectly legal and who do not want treatment.
Ethan Nadelmann of Princeton, a prominent proponent of legalization, makes much of the inconsistency between the way we deal with drugs and tobacco. With others, he emphasizes that cigarettes are more addictive than most illegal drugs and exact a much higher toll of sickness and death. James Wilson, in the aforementioned article, responds to that argument: “Both nicotine and cocaine are highly addictive; both have harmful physical effects. But we treat the two drugs differently, not simply because nicotine is so widely used as to be beyond the reach of effective prohibition, but because its use does not destroy the user’s essential humanity. Tobacco shortens one’s life, cocaine debases it. Nicotine alters one’s habits, cocaine alters one’s soul. The heavy use of crack, unlike the heavy use of tobacco, corrodes those natural sentiments of sympathy and duty that constitute our human nature and make possible our social life. To say, as does Nadelmann, that distinguishing morally between tobacco and cocaine is ‘little more than a transient prejudice’ is close to saying that morality itself is but a prejudice.”
The connection between morality and law is, to say the least, complicated. But that there is a necessary connection is acknowledged by all but the crackpot positivists in legal studies. To be sure, there is not always a direct correlation between moral judgment and legal prescription. Much that is legal—greed, sloth, and envy for examples—is not moral, and the reverse is also true. But the law also has a cautionary and pedagogical function. Through laws, even when they cannot consistently be enforced, we say what we prize and what we contemn, we say something about what kind of community we intend to be. One should be able to infer from the laws of a society some idea, of that society’s understanding of personal and public virtue. Under the assault of individualistic liberationisms from the left and the right, this role of law has been obscured in our recent history. And virtue, personal and public, has suffered as a consequence.
As in the debate about the prohibition of alcohol, the drug legalizers argue that law unenforced is law brought into disrepute. The point is well taken, except that today drug laws, however imperfectly enforced, are not unenforced. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that they are being more effectively enforced. If we say that they should not be enforced. or that they should be rescinded, we will be perceived to be surrendering to the dismal fact that, whatever the merits of the laws, we cannot enforce them. The inferences to be drawn from the perception of society’s impotence to enforce its laws will not be lost on the American people, criminals and law-abiding citizens alike.
Prochoice on drugs, like prochoice on abortion, is defeatism. As we have, at least for the moment, declared ourselves a society unable or unwilling to protect unborn children, so now we are urged to declare ourselves a society unable or unwilling to protect young people from the lethal poison of drugs. Praying for America, the patriotic hymn asks God to “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Whatever their various intentions, those who urge legalization are party to turning liberty into license. Whether they do it dolefully because they believe we have no choice, or frivolously because they have not reckoned the consequences, they contribute to increasing lawlessness. The doleful must be reminded that we still do have a choice, and the frivolous must be told to get serious.
Among the most compelling reasons to get serious is the impact of drugs on the poor, and especially on the black poor in our cities. Drugs and the phenomenon of the black underclass are inseparable. In the places where the crisis is most severe, the people are not calling for legalization, they are desperately calling for help in taking control of their streets, their neighborhoods, their families, their lives. Make no mistake about it, there are few other issues on which black Americans are watching the society’s response more closely. Already prominent voices in the black community speak in anger about drugs as white America’s “genocide” against blacks. There is no reason to respect such demagogic drivel, but neither can it be ignored. Talk about legalizing drugs plays into the hands of black racialists who are eager to promote the idea that America does not care about the deaths of young blacks and the devastation of inner-city communities.
More important, the proposal to legalize drugs undermines the credibility and confidence of the most responsible leaders who are working, hope against hope, to rebuild the infrastructure of their communities. It is not racialist hysteria but sober realism to recognize that many Americans have given up on caring about the communities isolated in our inner cities. Usually sotto voce, but sometimes quite publicly, the sentiment is expressed that, if “they” want to kill themselves off with drugs, let them go to it. In addition to the inherent evil of such a sentiment, the entire society has a steep stake in resisting the moral cynicism that would permanently consign millions of citizens to the shadowed ghettos dominated by drugs, crime, and their associated pathologies. While each person is ultimately responsible for his own actions, we should not deny that the addicts in our inner cities are, in important respects, also the victims of larger societal patterns. It was not very long ago that many in the elites of the media, the academy, and stylish religion were celebrating drugs as a component of the liberated lifestyle. Television and popular entertainment bombarded Americans with propaganda favoring drugs, sexual inversion, open marriages, female self-sufficiency, and other liberations from putatively oppressive bourgeois constraints. Escalating divorce rates, children with too many parents, women who had it all except for the children they will never have, AIDS, and the drug deaths of celebrities—these are among the factors that forced a new measure of sobriety among most Americans.
Among the chic it is now much less chic to do drugs. Those at the bottom of society, however, the structure of whose lives were most fragile to begin with, made the mistake of believing their social betters. For them, “alternative lifestyle” turned out to mean the alternative to sustainable life. It is nice today to hear celebrities on talk shows affirm the importance of sobriety, family, and even marital fidelity. One hopes they remember the line they were chattering only a few years ago. If one wants today to see the continuing social consequences of that liberationist line, one has only to visit Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Chicago, or the crack babies in the preemie wards of our city hospitals.
There are eminently thoughtful people among the proponents of legalizing drugs, and many more thoughtful people have not yet made up their minds on the issue. It must be admitted that we cannot know for sure what all the consequences of legalization might be. We do know that the risks are very high. We should know that it is recklessly fatuous to say, as the aforementioned National Review article does say, “If for whatever reason, legalization doesn’t improve the situation, it would take five minutes to reverse it.” In a journal that proclaims reverence for the wisdom of Aristotle, Aquinas, Burke, and Oakeshott on the delicate connections between laws and mores, it is nothing short of astonishing to encounter this cavalier engineering approach to social policy and behavior, as though they were switches to be turned on and off at will.
Much more convincing is the conclusion of James Q. Wilson in opposing legalization. “I may be wrong. If I am, then we will needlessly have incurred heavy costs in law enforcement and some forms of criminality. But if I am right, and the legalizers prevail anyway, then we will have consigned millions of people, hundreds of thousands of infants, and hundreds of neighborhoods to a life of oblivion and disease. To the lives and families destroyed by alcohol we will have added countless more destroyed by cocaine, heroin, PCP, and whatever else a basement scientist can invent.”
Wilson may be wrong. We may be wrong. But legalize drugs? We think not.