The hemp worshippers over at National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) are trying to suck us into the abyss. Everywhere we look, from celebrities to university professors and even among some medical professionals, the pressure to succumb to the siren song of drug legalization permeates the stifled debate of one of the most divisive domestic issues facing Americans today. Tackling this issue in the context of a more appropriate definition and goal will clear away the barbed wire and the blazing rhetoric obstacles that continue to hinder progress in this and other connected social issues that seem to go on ad infinitum.
The rationales both for and against legalization in the debate are well known, particularly among those of us with a strong libertarian streak running through our cognitive ability to reason, in the pro-use crowd, government legislative bodies and associated law enforcement communities. To this day, the debate remains in the forefront of important issues such as liberty and security.
The modern-day counter-revolutionaries and social dissidents from both wings use all manner of social policy studies and law enforcement data to support their own individual positions. But, morally or legally right or wrong, “legalization” as a term to define a more reasonable policy remains dead on arrival. Proponents of both sides should abandon its use to achieve their specific aims. Here’s why.
A more acceptable term for both sides to serve the debate is “decriminalization” with an understanding of the restrictive political and psychological variables inevitable in addressing it. Simply put, it means to take steps that alter the public perception of drug use and its extraneous social issues, causing a slow groundswell of acceptable and rational change.
But it is perhaps the loss of individual political capital on the part of politicians that prevents real progress. Politicians are charged with decision making in our representative democracy. It is simply untenable for them to support even reasonable policies, regardless of the research and overwhelming evidence supporting one side or another, when the public perception runs counter to that evidence. The history of narcotics use and its prohibition in the United States is robust. There is also a significantly entrenched body of law that is in place to deal with narcotics use and smuggling in the United States. Overturning this alone in the name of legalization would take a lifetime of legislative struggle. We have seen years of actual blood and treasure spent on enforcing these laws, and emotions on all sides run high when it comes to the unending horrors of those with loved ones lost to narcotics. These factors sway public perception as to the continuing need for aggressive governmental control of illicit narcotics use. After all, we’ve come this far in the “war on drugs.” It would be perfectly rational at this point for most to destroy the village in order to save it.
The expectation that simply legalizing drug use would be the right thing to do is fallacious. It is simplistic and uncritical in respect to the complex psychological factors and great amount of fear involved. Items of contention such as the widespread approval of medicinal marijuana, insignificant penalties for possession of narcotics and an alleviation of the overburdened prison complex are a pipe dream under the rubric of mere legalization. The public is constantly bombarded with the unsettling newsreel footage of actors such as Robert Downey, Jr. on his knees in the back room schlepping for his daily fix. No mother or father wants their children to be party to that. Until liberty is made fashionable and the creation of a socially acceptable infrastructure is in place to deal with the inevitable flotsam and jetsam of narcotics abuse, the notion of “legalization” will never get a fair hearing. Nor should it.
What needs to take place is an open public debate between the nay-sayers, held to standards they may not wish to enforce in the face of contradictory evidence, and the users, who clandestinely hide their intentions behind incremental usurpation of jurisprudence. A continuous educational blitz is needed to accurately define the real terms of the debate for the public. Only then will it become politically tenable to begin a policy of benign neglect of drug laws. The public remains numbed by other social distractions to the explicit constitutional dictates regarding liberty and the limitations on federal, state and local law enforcement. In light of the years of sacrifices and drug horrors suffered by both sides, this will serve as a more appropriate vehicle in clarifying the specifics of narcotics use in general and proposing a more efficient national drug policy.
Finally, understanding and respecting the concept of liberty while accepting the inherent responsibilities of the individual in society are necessary positions for both sides to grasp in order to deal with the issue fairly. Get used to the word “decriminalization” and lose the false hope of “legalization.”
Steve Stanley is a graduate student in the international administration program in the School of International Studies.