Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children - an argument for drug legalization

Recently on this blog an anonymous commenter wrote:
I understand your need to focus on the "seemingly impossible task" as noted by the Commissioner. Undoubtly, it fuels your agenda to promote the legalization of drugs in the fashion of "Can't beat them, why not join them". Fact is, that's the easy way out, and I'd bet you probably don't have any children to worry about.
I'm on the front lines everyday, drugs destroy people and drain our society. If my entire career results in just one kid avoiding drug addiction whether it be from prevention/education or from me locking up some scum bag distributing the poison, then I've done my job.
I shudder at the thought of a world you imagine.
Having no valid argument to make, the commenter has resorted to Helen Lovejoy's tactic "Won't somebody please think of the children"

I've wanted to respond to this for some time because it is such an intellectually dishonest argument.

The commenter first assumes that people who advocate for drug legalization must not have children. While I have no children that I know about, many drug people who have advocated for drug legalization have children. William F. Buckley, former Governor Gary Johnson, Milton Friedman, and countless others have or had children. Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman who advocates for drug legalization, has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I could go on and on. Whether or not one has children should not really have any place in this debate. It is bizarre that the anonymous writer even made this remark.

It is also worth questioning whether or not this fellow changed his views on drug laws after having children. I would be willing to bet that he held his views before having his first child. But since he is anonymous and didn't respond to my remarks I have no way of knowing.

But let us consider his argument - that we should continue prohibition for the children. We must ask how prohibition really benefits the children.

1. Marijuana usage rates among children are higher in the United States than they are in Holland, where you can smoke a joint without going to jail. This is because business owners who run coffee shops are responsible people who don't want to violate the law by serving minors. At the local tobacco shop in Annapolis the owner cards anyone who looks young. If tobacco were sold on the streets by scumbag dealers they would sell to anyone. And this is why it is easier in the United States for children to obtain marijuana than it is for them to get alcohol or tobacco. If you don't want kids to use drugs it makes more sense to legalize them and to set age limits. Responsible businessmen won't sell to children. The very few irresponsible businessmen who do can be fined out of business. [I can still remember being at the house of one of my friends from high school. His mom was cheering at the Democratic Convention where Chris Dodd was railing against tobacco companies. Meanwhile a year before he was smoking pot outside and complaining about how the local 7-11 owner wouldn't sell him cigars because he wasn't 18 yet.]

2. The forbidden fruit aspect should be considered. Because it is illegal it has a certain lure to it. The fact of the matter is that you can get high or screwed up off of damn near anything - alcohol, benadryl, glue, paint, etc. Most normal people don't do this because they have their own self-interest at heart. Many children try marijuana and other illegal drugs because they are illegal.

3. If we are concerned about all children, we should think of the impact that the drug war has on black children. In big cities every day children are caught in the cross-fire between criminal gangs that would not exist but for prohibition. And what about the children of Mexico, Central America, and South America who are killed by the drug trade? This all would be ended overnight if we legalized illegal drugs. Alcohol and tobacco producers and dealers produce no such carnage.

4. The drug war was racist in its origins and continues to be so. It was started in the early 20th century by newspaper reporters and politicians who started stories about 'cocaine-crazed negros raping white women.' It was nothing but an excuse to arrest and persecute blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans. Even today blacks make up a disproportionate amount of prison populations. You can draw two conclusions - blacks are disproportionately more likely to be criminals or there is institutional racism in the drug war. The latter is obvious. It is the unspoken truth that everyone in law enforcement knows. Think of the poor black children who are deprived of their parents because they are serving prison sentences for so-called drug crimes.

5. Not directly related to children, but think of how drug policy has destroyed our foreign policy. Almost every South and Central American country is now in the hands of anti-American leftists who openly reject American drug policy. The Taliban in Afghanistan is funded in good part by the illegal drug trade. If we could legalize the production of poppies we could end this and save lives.

6. Think about the children of law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in this vicious and pointless wars. Was it really worth it . . . to protect a small percentage of the population that was self-destructive to begin with?

7. It has been my experience that most people addicted to drugs came from broken or abusive homes. A better argument could be made for banning divorce and for more vigorous enforcement of laws against child abuse. Other people become addicted due to untreated physical pain. The DEA persecutes doctors who are aggressive in treating pain. And, of course, this leads to more business for them and for more justification for their existence.

I think the bottom line is this - before 1914 we had no national drug laws. You could buy heroin from the drug store. Back then less than 2% of the population could be considered addicted to drugs, despite all of our efforts, that number is the same, if not higher. The drug war has been a complete and total failure. It hasn't protected children. It has killed children. It has destroyed lives. And now it is time for us to think again.

Within a few years, if not sooner, marijuana will be legal. A majority of the American population wants to legalize marijuana now. And children will have less access to it. Other drugs may be put on prescription. Hopefully they will all be legal a few years after that. We will see the results, and if history, logic, and reason have anything to do with it (and they usually do) drug use, especially among children, will be lower.

So please, think of the children. Think of the children who are buying drugs on the streets from dealers. Think of the children who are killed in battles over drug turf. Think of the children in Mexico who are being murdered. Think of the children who have parents in prison. Think of the children who die in terrorist attacks. Think of the children and legalize drugs!


  1. +1 for the Simpsons reference!

    And, of course, great overall response. As you said, the "think of the children" argument in favor of prohibition is a total straw man that will never stand up to any sort of intellectual vetting.

    Oh and by the way, the most recent "Monitoring the Future" survey was just published. We've long known that marijuana is easier for kids to obtain than cigarettes, and this year we've seen the usage rates of those two substances cross. More kids use illegal marijuana than controlled tobacco.

    The survey also says that nationwide teen marijuana use has risen slightly. This is significant, because other studies have shown reductions in teen marijuana use in states that allow access to medical marijuana. So which system -- prohibition or controlled access -- is doing a better job of keeping kids away from drugs?

  2. It's no surprise to me that someone who works "on the front lines everyday" who hold such backward views. Many people cannot think of anything beyond what they see. But your commentator fails to adhere to basic logic... the damage he/she witnesses occurs EVEN WHILE drugs are outlawed.

  3. I certainly don't doubt the sincerity of the "anonymous commenters" words, but they so reflect the 'black and white' thinking that is commonplace among many in our profession. Sincere, but common, and often disastrously flawed.

    Further, the poster falls back on the rhetoric of the drug war to lend emotional, but not logical, support to his position. He is a warrior "on the front lines" pushing back against thte "scumbags" and their "poison" that "destroy people and drain our society," and if he can save "just one kid," he has done his job.

    Such passion!

    But I ask, does the poster worry about the damage to a young adult's future after being pinched for possession of a little weed at a college party?

    Does the the poster worry that granting "use" equivalency with "addiction" or "abuse" is innacurate and stigmatizing, or that we in law enforcement are viewed negatively by those who do understand the differentiation?

    Does the poster worry about the addicts who, even if they can successfully kick their addictions are forever hampered in their successful reintegration into mainstream society (those criminal hisorie sfollow long after the sentence is disposed)?

    Does the poster worry about the well-being of arrestees who are forced into a dangerous game of "F**k your buddy" when they are recruited as CIs in order to work off charges? Or that, realistically, most dealers are not necessarily "scumbags" bent on "spreading poison" but small-timers providing to their friends and associates?

    Does the poster worry that the continued illegality of most substances, and the nature of how we combat them, ensures that the top tiers of the drug distribution pyramid (a very lucrative MLM business, if you think about it), are run by criminals far removed and well-shielded from the street level wars? Or that, when one does occasionally get arrested and sent off, his peers celebrate for it just opens more channels for their distribution network?

    Does the poster worry about the BILLIONS of dollars funneled into the drug war every year because of its "drain on society," without truly addressing the actual societal ills that contribute to demand for drugs? It's like spending every night stepping on cockroaches in the kitchen but never doing anything about the rotting food that attracts them.

    Does the poster worry that so much of the distrust of law enforcement, and frequent condemnation of LE actions, are a direct result of how we conduct the current war on drugs? That the pursuit of the almighty dope pinch forces us to continuously push the boundaries of the 4th Amendment? That the pursuit of the almighty dope pinch alienates us from society to our (and societies) detriment? That the tide is shifting in public sentiment and, if we do not shift with it and accept that we are servants of the public, we will become ever more seperate from the pubic we protect?

    I believe the poster is sincere. I also believe he (or she) is wrong in so many ways and doesn't even realize it because of the blinders so many of us are forced to wear.

    Be safe all.

  4. A minor point: the pure food and drug act of 1906 was a national drug law. The Harrison Act of 1914 that you reference is presumably mentioned because it was the first "prohibition." But actually, both measures started life as informational; the PF&D act required truth in labelling, while the 1914 law was promulgated as "record-keeping" only, and only with court decisions in the years following did the law come to restrict drug distribution overtly. The distinction is important because it calls our attention to the ways that drug prohibition has always depended on constitutionally suspect actions (like using the interstate commerce clause to keep someone from growing their own).

  5. Good points Matthew. You're right, the procedural details are important here. Remember that a ratified Constitutional Amendment was required to institute -- and repeal -- alcohol prohibition. Modern drug prohibition has evolved without this very basic requirement; it's a patchwork of regulations, court decisions, sentencing laws, international treaties, etc etc.

    So, from the very beginning, drug prohibition symbolized a basic violation of the rule of law. That status has only solidified and calcified over the ensuing decades (nearing a century now!).

  6. Whether or not one has children should not really have any place in this debate. It is bizarre that the anonymous writer even made this remark.

    My perspective is this kind of comment is based on the amorphous "Family Values." However, it doesn't take much time, and one doesn't even have to watch Reality TV shows like "Wife Swap," to realize that families often have very different values.

    So basically, to me, "Family Values" is just a thinly veiled attempt to enforce "my version of religious values" on others. However, this too doesn't withstand honest scrutiny, for a variety of reasons. First it seems to me that the people who started this saying are trying to imply what they are pushing are "Christian" values. So let's take a quick look at the life of Christ and see what we have.

    1. A man who was not married and had no kids.
    2. A man who said it was better to remain single and childless than to be married and have kids.
    3. A man who wandered around and didn't have a job.
    4. A man who relied on handouts and the kindness of strangers for food, clothing, and housing (when he wasn't sleeping outdoors, homeless).
    5. A man whose family came to take charge of him because they thought he was crazy.
    6. A man who said he came to bring division in families so that a person's enemies would be the people of his own family. "A man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."

    The forbidden fruit aspect should be considered. Because it is illegal it has a certain lure to it. … Many children try marijuana and other illegal drugs because they are illegal.

    I agree. There are two reasons I don't hear too often, so I'll share them here.

    1. Not just because it's illegal but because they are trying to irritate authority figures. You want to see rebellious kids do the exact opposite of what you want? Spend all your time telling them what not to do. Throw a fit and fly off the handle when you see anything on your list of "do-nots" taking place, the more you loose control, curse, and make odd facial expressions and exhibit other quirks, the more they will be sure to want to see your performances.

    2. It's been a while since I've graduated high school and college, but it seems to me I remember hearing other kids use reasoning like this, "it's illegal, so I will try it now while it's available to me."

    But the latter point was not used with regards to legal/regulated drugs because some of the kids would reason, "I can drink when I'm old enough, I'll wait." I know many will jump on me and say "not everyone is mature enough to think like that." My reply to that is "I know. But many kids are smarter than they're given credit for." And we know the "one size fits all" approach does not often work; there are many strategies for education and achieving objectives, not everyone needs the same lessons or presented the same way.

    I agree, "Save Our Children, Legalize Drugs," (a PDF of mini-handouts you can download and hand out, to get the conversation started).

  7. I want to make a quick correction on the original post.

    "If we are concerned about all children, we should think of the impact the drug war has on black children. In big cities every day children are caught in the cross-fire between criminal gangs that would not exist but for prohibition."

    A better sample would be "urban children" or "inner-city children" since not necessarily all African-Americans are city dwellers and not all "inner-city children" are necessarily African-Americans.

    That said, great post!

  8. I am a parent of four children and they have many, many friends.

    I will let you know right now that my kids have easier access to marijuana, heroin, ecstacy and other fare than they access to alcohol and cigarettes. Those are the 2 hardest items for them to get and the only two that are regulated and controlled.

    Believe me, I live it every day.

    I don't know where you people live, but drugs are rampant and always have been and always will be as long as they are prohibited.

    Get a CLUE!!!

  9. "Save Our Children, Legalize Drugs" link 404'd. :(

  10. Sorry Anonymous, I tried the link right after I posted it and it worked fine.

    Now I too see the error. :-( But there are a few easy solutions.

    1. Just "right click" on the link above and you can download the PDF directly to your computer. That works (for me).

    2. Visit any page on that website and in the upper right sidebar are links to plenty of mini-handouts with all the "official" LEAP sayings I could round up.

    Curiously when I clicked those links in the side bar, all of them downloaded except The Children. But I've checked and double checked the HTML, server permissions, invisible characters, etc…, so it's a temporary mystery/glitch/bug. But all of them can be downloaded via the "right click" method. Another note is I tried the link above with FireFox and at my site with FireFox and everything downloaded correctly.

  11. I really appreciate all the feedback, additions, and corrections. Hopefully this post and its comments will be useful to anyone engaging in a discussion on drug policy.

  12. Kids have reported on the government's own SAMHSA drug survey for over ten years that it is easier for them to obtain marijuana than it is to get alcohol or tobacco. The kids that drug dealers have retailing the drugs have no problem selling them to anyone with money. Regulation and sale through businesses that would ask for ID and who could lose their licences for sale to a minor could go a long way to solving the problem. I do think that this would take the forbidden fruit aspect out of drugs and would be of benefit. We have spent over a trillion dollars on a war on drugs that has produced drugs of higher potency and cheaper costs. We now have more people using drugs than ever. There is something clearly wrong when the drug war itself kills far more people than do the drugs themselves. The drug war is not just failed policy, it is a war on the American people. Those countries that are working with harm reduction approaches are having much more success than we do with draconian laws and inhumane punishments.

  13. @ Dave K, We now have more people using drugs than ever.

    To spring off what you mentioned …

    Lots of prohibitionists use this saying, and then say it’s due to “demand.” And thus they need to engage in “demand reduction” which basically means crushing, shaming, imprisoning others.

    But the obvious fact they overlook is that the prohibitionists caused the highly profitable black market, and that is what caused peddlers to multiply, and create a never ending supply of them; each one looking to stake a claim, create a new market, or take over someone else’s market.

    The prohibitionist mindset puts the cart before the horse, and elevates itself over others as self-appointed master to dictate others’ wishes, desires, and feelings.


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