Because prohibitionists are usually rather averse to participating in any sort of debate in which the untenability of the drug war — a.k.a. Prohibition II, the sequel with a much bigger budget, a lot more hype, and a far higher body count — might be exposed, I thought I was onto something interesting when I ran across an Orlando Sentinel article entitled, "Should Marijuana be Legalized?" The September 8, 2006 report heralded the news of "The Great Debate: Heads vs. Feds," in which Steven Hager, editor-in-chief of High Times magazine, and Bob Stutman, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, discuss both sides of the issue of whether marijuana should be "legalized."
I was soon disappointed, however, when I learned that this "Great Debate" is not really a debate at all. High Times has some exclusive video highlights of "Heads vs. Feds" and, if they are an example of what transpires at these events, then they are not truly debates, but rather exhibition matches between two gentlemen who have been, for a number of years, performing a very popular routine before standing-room-only crowds.
It’s a road show, an intellectual “concert” tour that can be booked through a company called Wolfman Productions, which has in its roster a wide variety of speakers and debaters who are available to perform discussions of numerous topics.
Now, entertainment is all well and fine, and fun is a Good Thing, but it does not truly raise awareness about just how deadly and destructive our prohibitionist drug policy really is, no matter how many thoughts this "Heads vs. Feds" production might promote in the minds of its audiences.
Of course, the "Heads vs. Feds" show would likely not be nearly as entertaining if it was presented as an honest debate about the principles of prohibition, instead of as a tiresome litany of the same questionable science and skewed statistics of which drug war propaganda has consisted for decades, being "refuted" with anachronistic "hippie" rhetoric and an impassioned defense of the "counterculture."
Clearly, this "Great Debate" is not intended to produce a "winner" as that would likely diminish its amusement value as a thought-provoking spectacle for its largely "pro-legalization" audiences – not to mention that Mr. Stutman might not care to play his "Fed" role opposite a "Head" who exposes the preposterousness of the boondoggle known as the "war on drugs," instead of pulling punches and leveling the playing field with weak and uninspired arguments that are even more feckless today than they were back in the 1970s.
Mr. Hager’s best one-sentence arguments for “legalizing” marijuana are:
- "It's good medicine"
- "Hemp is good for the environment"
- "We need to stop expanding and privatizing prisons"
- "We need to stop funding corruption with prohibition prices"
- "It's the sacrament of my culture"
The medical marijuana and industrial hemp issues are important and they are related to the larger goals of drug policy reform, but they should be left out of a debate about the merits of interdicting certain human behaviors and habits as they cloud the issue with facts and ideas that distract listeners from the core argument against drug prohibition, which is that it is, in fact, the "drug problem," and it has been masquerading as a solution to itself for almost a century.
I believe it is a given that adults have the right to ingest whatever substances they may find relaxing and/or enjoyable, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. But this assertion does not win friends or influence people, it is proselytization that is usually aimed, as a rallying cry, toward the already converted.
Nobody who has been taught by decades of drug war propaganda to fear the potential consequences of drug policy reform really cares that potheads feel oppressed because they might go to jail for breaking laws that are currently on the books in all 50 states.
Marijuana laws might not pass the old "laugh test" for those of us who know better, but most people don't know better and their attitudes toward those dark and frightening things of which they wish to remain ignorant are deeply ingrained. Plus, they don't want to touch anything called "counterculture" with one of those proverbial ten-foot poles, let alone make an effort to understand it, or to attempt to cultivate some sort of grudging respect for it.
Indeed, we should stop expanding and privatizing prisons. We should also stop funding corruption with the artificial inflation and price supports that prohibitionist policies unintentionally provide to the criminal element.
These are the issues with which reformers should go on the offensive because the only way to be perceived as winning a debate is to put your opponents on the defensive and keep them there for the duration.
Harsh on the drug warriors! Don't let them back you into a corner, in which you become obliged to defend recreational drug use, the counterculture, and all manner of scary crime and overdose statistics that are laid squarely at the feet of your opposing viewpoint as the consequence of your failure to conform to the fears, uncertainties, and doubts of teeming masses of brainwashed asses!
Make the drug prohibitionists defend drug prohibition!
A few choice harshing points for the thoughtful reformer's arsenal:
- If you support the war on drugs, you are in favor of our children having easy access (black market dealers do not ask for I.D.) to drugs that have gotten steadily purer, cheaper and more plentiful since the 1970s.
- If you support the war on drugs, you also support the cartels, kingpins, mobsters and gangs. Politics making for strange bedfellows, those whose livelihoods depend upon the protections and benefits of prohibitionist policies, are among the staunchest prohibitionists.
- If you support the war on drugs, you must want yet another generation of our inner city youth to grow up fast and die young in an atmosphere of crime, degradation and fear, for the benefits of the long-established retail drug trade far outweigh any possible risks to those who are born into circumstances of limited opportunity.
- If you support the war on drugs, you also support organized crime and all the violence of gangsterism, which prohibition has enabled to become a highly diversified, multicultural enterprise.
Don't let drug warriors get away with that "soft on crime" routine that frightens so many of our politicians. Prohibition is not just soft on crime, it creates it and it's helpful to it because the "war on drugs" is the ultimate de-regulation policy.
To the proprietors of an underground economy that is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, interdiction is nothing but a small line item in their loss columns, part of the cost of doing business, which barely affects their huge, tax-free, bottom lines.
Don't fall into the "alcohol trap" in which the prohibitionist agrees that perfectly legal alcohol is, by far, the most widely abused drug whose irresponsible use causes much death and destruction, but then follows up with rhetoric about how this is the best example of "why we don't need another legal drug," as if millions of people are not already using the illegal drug, and as if the drug laws are all that stand between a sober, productive society and a nation of "stoned-out zombies."
Don’t be intimidated by the alcohol death statistics, for not only do they include a wide array of alcohol-related illnesses, accidents, and crimes, they are not representative of the vast majority of alcohol users who enjoy alcohol responsibly and moderately, and without incident. It’s the two-percenters who get all the attention, especially when they die of alcohol poisoning, which is a euphemism for an overdose.
(While we’re on the subject of overdoses, this seems a fit place to mention that, during the course of over 5000 years of recorded history, there has never been a single overdose death attributed to marijuana alone – and that is most decidedly not due to the lack of an honest effort.)
Comparisons of the modern drug war with Prohibition (1920-1933) can be a drug warrior’s worst nightmare because, when they are effectively and accurately applied, they become very convincing arguments that render any and all possible defenses of modern drug prohibition baseless and vulnerable.
Never mind whether or not Prohibition reduced alcohol use, there is no way to tell anyway because, just like it is with the modern "drug war," nobody knew who was selling what to whom, or for how much. The Prohibition era statistic that matters most is the murder rate, which began to climb steadily with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920, and did not begin to fall again until several years after the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933.
Ask a drug warrior to describe the difference between Al Capone and Pablo Escobar and see how he or she changes the subject, dismisses the question as irrelevant, or tries to dance around the obvious similarities with arbitrary rhetoric about "nowadays."
Try to avoid using the words "legalize" and "decriminalize" as not only have these terms become propagandized, they never really made any logical sense at all because the solution is not to "legalize" illegal drugs, but rather to regulate unregulated drugs.
Advocates of drug policy reform — whom prohibitionists sometimes refer to as "drug legalizers" — understand the true intent behind those words, but the larger society has been well-trained to equate them with chaos and anarchy.
A large, but shrinking, majority still believes that drug prohibition acts as a deterrent to the black market. In order to dispel this drug war myth that is so deeply ingrained into the public sentiment, reformers will need to clearly demonstrate how drug prohibition created and continues to enable the black market.
Simply demonizing the black market is not enough; prohibitionists already do that when they defend the drug war as "the solution" to it when the fact of the matter is that the black market in unregulated drugs became a low-risk, high profit business because of — not in spite of — the "war on drugs."
Drug prohibition prevents the regulation of the drug business, but not the manufacture, sale and use of drugs. No authority or agency really knows who is selling what to whom, where they are selling it, or for how much.
Prohibitionist policies have never produced results that justify their cost to taxpayers, but they did create and continue to support a wealthy class of tax-exempt black market profiteers.
- The black market drug business thrives without taxes, regulations or restrictions.
- The black market considers interdiction mere "spillage," which can be easily minimized by producing and moving more product. (And so what if quality and purity might suffer in the process? It is not as if any recalls would be imposed.)
- The black market does not have to comply with any labeling or packaging requirements. Unregulated drugs usually come packaged in plain plastic bags, but millions of people buy them anyway.
- The black market is not subject to zoning restrictions or licensing or regulatory inspections.
- Black market businesses do not collect sales taxes or pay income or property taxes.
- Black market drug dealers sell drugs to anyone, regardless of age, making it easier for kids to buy drugs.
The black market drug business has no consumer advocacy agencies or fair business practice and pricing associations. Black market drug dealers, growers, manufacturers, and consumers who have grievances cannot go to a court of law to settle their differences or turn to law enforcement in the event of theft or fraud, so they settle their disputes with violence, which is the primary reason why we must regulate these currently unregulated drugs.
In a contest of "Heads vs. Feds," the "Heads" should always win, not so much because we are entitled as citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave, but because history and pragmatism are on our side.
"Heads vs. Feds: Drug War Another Regulatory Failure," by Ralph Shnelvar, May 1, 2003, The Colorado Freedom Report.