William Bennett: Legal Drugs Wouldn't have Saved Whitney Houston

By Lucy Steigerwald

Call it Bennett on Bennett on Houston on drugs. That is to say, former U.S. Drug Czar William J. Bennett had some harsh words in response to singer Tony Bennett's comments about legalizing drugs so as to prevent tragedies like the deaths of Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, and now Whitney Houston.

Singer Bennett said at a Grammy awards party last week: 

I'd like to have every gentleman and lady in this room commit themselves to get our government to legalise drugs. So they have to get it from a doctor, not just some gangsters that just sell it under the table.

Drug Czar Bennett is not keen on this argument, referring to Singer Bennett's "idiotic comments" in a piece on CNN.com today. The former Bennett notes that Arianna Huffington agreed, saying "the war on drugs is a failure."

Bennett and Huffington's misguided solutions would result in more tragic deaths like Houston's. Illicit drugs are not harmful because they are illegal, they are illegal precisely because they are harmful. It is my hope that in the national dialogue surrounding Houston's death, our country's loudest voices would speak honestly and seriously about the drug problems in America.

In the 1980s and '90s, the U.S. beat back the cocaine and heroine epidemics, not by legalization or decriminalization, but by tough law enforcement, strong prevention and education programs and public outcry. You could hardly watch TV without seeing the Partnership For a Drug-Free America's famous "This is your brain on drugs" advertisements. If we are to be successful today, we must reignite that same national effort.

Maybe William Bennett isn't entirely wrong about Tony Bennett beng too hasty. After all, Winehouse died from alcohol, Jackson from a legal painkiller administrated directly by his doctor. And Houston, though she admitted to and clearly suffered from addictions to illegal drugs such as cocaine, still has a big question mark around her cause of death. Maybe it was prescription drugs mixed with alcohol, maybe it was something completely shocking. We won't know for a few weeks. But can't we at least be certain that the war on drugs didn't help Houston?

Writing over at the Huffington Post, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition executive director Neil Franklin, along with the president of Columbia University's Students for Sensible Drug Policy, take issue with the notion that Singer Bennett was trying to score political points (which is only acceptable when you're anti-legalization!) or was simply being irrelevant:

Some of those criticizing Bennett's remarks don't seem to understand the role that prohibition of some drugs plays in stigmatizing all people battling addiction -- whether to legal or illegal drugs -- and how punitive drug laws create roadblocks to recovery.

For example: "Bennett's remarks were misleading because in every case he mentioned we are talking about legal prescription drugs or alcohol," addiction specialist Marty Ferrero told Fox News. 

"No, sorry. She got legal drugs from her doctor," said songwriter Diane Warren. "So that was inappropriate," she told the Los Angeles Times.

These well-meaning folks sadly miss the point. It doesn't matter if you're hooked on alcohol, Xanax or illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine -- prohibition for some drugs stigmatizes all people struggling with addiction. Period. Addicts are not defined simply by their drug of choice nor the drug that is or is not their ultimate cause of death. Their entire lives are tragically plagued by the stigma that criminalization heaps upon them, and the marginalized underworld prohibition thrusts them into.

That is a painful and deadly component of the experience of anyone unlucky enough to live with a disease that, unlike cancer, our government tries to battle with handcuffs.

Maer Roshan of TheFix.com -- a great news source on addiction and recovery issues -- rightly explains, "We can't tackle this epidemic in a piecemeal kind of way. At detoxes and rehabs across the country, prescription pill addicts and alcoholics and meth-heads are coke-heads all share the same plight, and suffer from the same scatter-shot treatment."

If drug warriors wanted to make drug use a grand moral issue, then they can't complain when people point out the reprecussions of the stigma of an addiction to drugs, legal or otherwise.

More Reason on LEAP, on prescription drugs, and on the drug war.


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