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Responding to Joe Klein on Drug Legalization

Earlier this week I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing drug legalization. In response, TIME magazine’s Joe Klein, who favors it, has written a dissent, critical but serious, which you can read here. Some responses to Klein follow:

1. “Most of [Wehner’s] arguments against dope come from a different era. He assumes a bright line between alcohol and ‘drugs.’ He assumes that marijuana is the entry drug on an inevitable path toward addiction. (He also seems to infer that marijuana is addictive.) Most of these arguments seem ridiculous to anyone who has inhaled.”

What I actually argue is a bit more nuanced and up-to-date than Klein’s characterization, and my claims happen to be true. Marijuana is much more potent than in the past. (In the 1970s, marijuana was at most 2-3 percent tetrahydrocanabinol, or THC. Recent Drug Enforcement Agency seizures were 7-10 percent. In Colorado and California, the marijuana dispensaries go as high as 15-20 percent or more.) Heavy use of marijuana does adversely affect brain development in the young. And the vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs start by using marijuana.

2. Does this mean that everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted to drugs like heroin and cocaine? Of course not. But it does mean that most of those who are addicted to cocaine and heroin started out by using marijuana. This hardly seems coincidental. Nor is there any credible evidence that I’m aware of that supports Klein’s sweeping claim that “Those who move on to harder drugs—and the infinitesimal minority who get hooked on harder drugs—would do so if marijuana were legal or not.”

Think about it like this: Some appreciable percentage of the population has a susceptibility to addiction (genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction). Under legalization, the pool of those exposed to marijuana will certainly increase by a significant factor; and the result will be that the number of those at considerable risk of moving to addiction on heroin or cocaine likewise grows.

Government surveys found that of those age 12 and above, 22.5 million were current illicit drug users (18.1 million of whom used marijuana) and 133.4 million were current users of alcohol. More than 20 million of these people suffered from dependence or abuse: 14.1 million for alcohol alone, 3.9 million for drugs alone, and 2.6 million for drugs and alcohol.

What can we reasonably expect the drug problem to look like if we increase the number of illicit drug users to, say, 50-60 million? You will get significantly more addiction–and significantly more shattered lives.

3. We know from Monitoring the Future studies, conducted by the University of Michigan since 1975, that the rate of marijuana use in youths is inversely related to “perceived risk” and “perceived social disapproval.” Legalization would lead to decreased perceived risk and decreased perceived social disapproval; the result would almost certainly be greater drug use. (See Figure 1 from this article by Drs. Herb Kleber and Robert DuPont.) On the flip side, treating drugs as unlawful acts as a deterrent, which is one reason we criminalize behavior in the first place.

4. Many legalizers assume that past efforts to reduce drug use have been failures. But the assumption is flawed. For example, William Bennett was President George H.W. Bush’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Under his strong leadership, we saw substantial decreases in overall drug use, adolescent drug use, occasional and frequent cocaine use, and drug-related medical emergencies. Student attitudes toward drug use hardened. In fact, the two-year goals that were laid out in Bennett’s first ONDCP strategy were exceeded in every category.

John Walters, who was President George W. Bush’s “drug czar,” also experienced impressive success during his tenure. Anti-drug policies have shown far more success than, to take just one example, gun control laws. (Two different studies–this one by the Centers for Disease Control, which reviewed 51 published studies about the effectiveness of eight types of gun-control laws, and this one by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine–found that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective.)

5. Several times Klein compares marijuana to alcohol, arguing that “it is simply illogical for alcohol to be legal and pot not.” The rejoinder is fairly obvious, and it goes like this: Alcohol has deep roots in America in ways that marijuana and other illegal drugs do not. I readily conceded that alcohol abuse is problematic and destroys many lives (estimates are that there are 80,000 alcohol-related deaths each year). The question is whether we want to compound this damage by increasing marijuana use as well. And to throw the argument back at Klein: Would he favor legalizing cocaine and heroin based on the argument that alcohol kills many more people than those two drugs do? Alcohol kills many more people than automatic weapons would if they were legalized. Does Klein therefore, in the name of an allegiance to logic, believe we should legalize ownership of M-16s? I rather doubt it.

Governing involves making prudential judgments that take into account complexities, nuances, and even inconsistencies in a polity’s views and attitudes. Human actions cannot be reduced to mathematical formulations. Edmund Burke’s discussion of “prejudice” in the context of his concerns with the French Enlightenment and its devotion to Reason are apposite here.

Where Klein and I do agree is that, in his words:

legalization of marijuana would compound the cascade of society toward unlimited individual rights—a trend that can be catastrophic if there isn’t a countervailing social emphasis on personal and civic responsibility. It might well accelerate the trend toward the couchification of American life; it certainly would not be a step toward the social rigor we’re going to need to compete in a global economy… if, in the mad dash toward pleasure and passivity, we lose track of our citizenship and the rigorous demands of a true working democracy, we may lose the social webbing that makes the pursuit of happiness possible.

Having found common ground with Joe Klein, New Democrat, I will happily pitch my tent there.



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