George Will on Legalizing Drugs: Vintage Scare Tactics

Washington Post’s George Will has briefly turned his attention away from baseball’s season opening to opine on the growing calls for marijuana legalization in America.  In his latest column, “The drug legalization dilemma” (which I think he originally titled: “Would drug legalization do more harm than good” based on the URL), he regurgitates the prohibitionist talking point that, yeah, the drug war really sucks and doesn’t work, but legalization would be much worse!

The costs — human, financial and social — of combating (most) drugs are prompting calls for decriminalization or legalization. America should, however, learn from the psychoactive drug used by a majority of American adults — alcohol.

Prohibition resembled what is today called decriminalization: It did not make drinking illegal; it criminalized the making, importing, transporting or selling of alcohol. Drinking remained legal, so oceans of it were made, imported, transported and sold.

Another legal drug, nicotine, kills more people than do alcohol and all illegal drugs — combined. For decades, government has aggressively publicized the health risks of smoking and made it unfashionable, stigmatized, expensive and inconvenient. Yet 20 percent of every rising American generation becomes addicted to nicotine.

So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it.

Here's the chance a first-time user will become "dependent". Kicking heroin, cocaine, or alcohol dependence can kill you. Quitting tobacco is notoriously difficult. Stopping caffeine or cannabis use results in irritability, mild headache, and sleeplessness.

Suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and included in the rations of all our fighting men and women in uniform!  No, wait, that was cigarettes in World War II.  Suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and were the primary sponsors of most major sporting events and music festivals!  No, wait, that’s beer today.  Suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and commercials with middle aged people in bathtubs promised it would invigorate your sex life.  No, wait, that’s the boner pills.

Prohibitionists can’t have a straight discussion about legalizing marijuana; the topic must always jump to cocaine and heroin (and sometimes meth).  Yes, if cocaine or heroin were legalized and sold over the counter in convenience stores to 18-year-olds like tobacco and to 21-year-olds like alcohol, and if they were marketed heavily in sports and music and movies, sure, that would be a public health disaster.  That’s why nobody in drug policy reform advocates for legalizing cocaine or heroin in that manner!

Can you imagine the public health disaster if we legalized something as addictive as caffeine?

People like Will can’t recognize that “legalized drugs” is a spectrum that ranges from aspirin to morphine.  Were we to legalize cocaine or heroin, I’d propose that it be somewhere closer to the morphine side of the spectrum.  Safe injection sites like those in Britain, Switzerland, and Vancouver BC have reduced the overdoses and HIV and Hep C infections that are the public health nightmare.  Addicts with clean needles and a safe source of unadulterated drugs don’t commit the crimes to get their fix, either.

It’s a tough thing to imagine, especially for someone morally opposed to injection drug use, but the results from harm reduction measures for these drug users are undeniable.  Regardless, the population of cocaine and especially heroin users we’re talking about is a very small market.  Even now, as prohibition has made cocaine and heroin much cheaper and more pure, there were only an estimated 244 thousand monthly heroin users and 1.4 million monthly cocaine users (just 363 thousand crack users).  Just who is it out there who’s not shooting heroin now thinking, “Dang it, I sure wish shooting smack was legal, I’d go buy a syringe and tie off right now!”

Teen Alcohol and Tobacco use has declined dramatically over the past thirty years

Now, while Will supposes that “legalization would mean drugs of reliable quality would be conveniently available from clean stores for customers not risking the stigma of breaking the law in furtive transactions with unsavory people” and therefore addiction and public harm would rise, he ignores the evidence for one of the legalized drugs he demonized, tobacco.  ”[G]overnment has aggressively publicized the health risks of smoking and made it unfashionable, stigmatized, expensive and inconvenient,” Will tells us, without ever noting that government strategy has worked in bringing down cigarette smoking to its lowest levels ever.  Even though it is available at “clean stores”, it is locked up away from kids and clerks ask for ID from purchasers.  And for years, I haven’t seen a cigarette ad on TV, it’s use is seen less and less in TV and movies, and NASCAR gave up the Winston Cup a long time ago.

But we’re not here to talk about legalizing all drugs, we’re here to talk about legalizing marijuana.  To that specific subject, Will devotes just one sentence: “Legalized marijuana could be produced for much less than a tenth of its current price as an illegal commodity.”  He means that to be a bad thing, by the way.  While Will is lamenting the “balloon effect” that occurs when law enforcement tries to squash cocaine or heroin production in the few places on Earth where it grows – squeeze production in Colombia and it just pops up in Bolivia – he ignores that there is no “balloon effect” for marijuana because we can all grow it pretty much everywhere.

How "safe" a drug is has very little to do with its legality. The green ones are legal without prescription, yellows and oranges require prescription, and reds are illegal drugs, period.

This is where the drug legalization debate must acknowledge that it is a different issue to legalize marijuana than to legalize other drugs.  The demand for marijuana and the support for its legalization are far greater than all other illegal drugs.  Most of the 17.4 million monthly marijuana users are not dependent, they are savvy consumers of medicine and mind-altering substances who are making the safest choice among those products.  They are not addicts with a physiological compulsion to use a product that a marketer can exploit.

We must also assure the George Wills of the world that legalization of marijuana is not likely to be the “7-Eleven Model”.  Why can’t legal marijuana be subject to the same advertising restrictions, government admonishment, and public segregation that legal tobacco is subject to?  Why do prohibitionists assume it would have to be just like alcohol with clever Super Bowl commercials, sexy spokesmodels, celebrity endorsements, and a thinly-veiled agenda to market to youngsters?  (Oh, yeah, because we keep saying “treat it like alcohol”…)