GOP should stand firm against drug legalization/Responding to Joe Klein on Drug Legalization

By Peter Wehner,

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush administration and special assistant to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Some say that the Republican Party needs to find new issues to champion if it hopes to become Americas majority party. There is something to this. But being a conservative party, the GOP should also look to the past, where wisdom often resides.

In that spirit, Republicans once again should take a strong stand against drug use and legalization. Virtually no lawmaker in either party is doing so.

For his part, President Obama has said more about the NCAA mens basketball bracket than he has about the dangers posed by illegal drugs. Gil Kerlikowske, the presidents drug czar, said last month that The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.

This is a startling admission, and there is a cost to abdication.

The drug-legalization movement is well-funded and making inroads. Voters in Washington state and Colorado passed ballot initiatives in November legalizing marijuana for recreational use. A bill to legalize marijuana was introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates last month. And Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to end federal prohibitions on marijuana use.

This is the perfect time for Republicans to offer counterarguments grounded in medical science, common sense and human experience.

For example: One of the main deterrents to drug use is because it is illegal. If drugs become legal, their price will go down and use will go up. And marijuana is far more potent than in the past. Studies have shown that adolescents and young adults who are heavy users of marijuana suffer from disrupted brain development and cognitive processing problems.

Drug legalization will lead to more cases of addiction, which shatters lives. The vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs started by using marijuana. John P. Walters, the drug czar in the George W. Bush administration, noted last year, Legalization has been tried in various forms, and every nation that has tried it has reversed course sooner or later.

Strong, integrated anti-drug policies have had impressive success in the United States. Both marijuana and cocaine use are down significantly from their peak use in the 1970s and 80s.

So the policy arguments against drug legalization are all there; they simply need to be deployed.

But there is another, deeper set of arguments to be made.

In his dialogues, Plato taught that no man is a citizen alone. Individuals and families need support in society and the public arena. Today, many parents rightly believe the culture is against them. Government policies should stand with responsible parents and under no circumstances actively undermine them.

Drug legalization would do exactly that. It would send an unmistakable signal to everyone, including the young: Drug use is not a big deal. Were giving up. Have at it.

In taking a strong stand against drug use and legalization, Republicans would align themselves with parents, schools and communities in the great, urgent task of any civilization: protecting children and raising them to become responsible adults. But the argument against drug legalization can go even further. As the late social scientist James Q. Wilson noted, many people cite the costs of and socioeconomic factors behind drug use; rarely do people say that drug use is wrong because it is morally problematic, because of what it can do to mind and soul. Indeed, in some liberal and libertarian circles, the language of morality is ridiculed. It is considered unenlightened, benighted and simplistic. The role of the state is to maximize individual liberty and be indifferent to human character.

This is an impossible stance to sustain. The law is a moral teacher, for well or ill, and self-government depends on certain dispositions and civic habits. The shaping of human character is preeminently overwhelmingly the task of parents, schools, religious institutions and civic groups. But government can play a role. Republicans should prefer that it be a constructive one, which is why they should speak out forcefully and intelligently against drug legalization.

Source: The Washington Post Published: April 2nd 2013

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.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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