Drug Policy and the Intellectuals
By William Bennett
Adapted from a speech given at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA. December 11 1989.
The issue I want to address is the USA's national drug policy and the intellectuals. Unfortunately, the issue is a little one-sided. There is a very great deal to say about our national drug policy, but much less to say about the intellectuals - except that, by and large, they're against it. Why they should be against it is an interesting question, perhaps more a social-psychological question than a properly intellectual one. But, whatever the reasons, on properly intellectual grounds the arguments mustered against our current drug policy by America's intellectuals make for very thin gruel indeed.
I should point out, however, that in the fields of medical and scientific research, there is indeed serious and valuable drug related work going on. But in the great public policy debate over drugs, the academic and intellectual communities have, by and large, had little to contribute, and little of that has been genuinely useful or, for that matter, mentally distinguished.
The field of national drug policy is wide open for serious research and serious thinking on both the theoretical and the practical levels. Treatment and prevention, education, law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the proper role of the federal government versus state and local jurisdictions, international diplomacy and foreign intelligence - these are only a few of the areas in which complex questions of policy and politics need to be addressed and resolved if our national drug strategy is to be successful. But apart from a handful of exceptions - including Mark Moore, Mark Kleiman and James Q. Wilson - on most of these issues the country's major ideas factories have not just shut down, they've hardly even tooled up.
It's not that most intellectuals are indifferent to the drug issue, though there may be some of that, too. Rather, they seem complacent and incurious. They've made up their minds, and they don't want to be bothered with further information or analysis, further discussion or debate, especially when it comes from Washington. What I read in the opinion columns of my newspaper or in my monthly magazine or what I hear from the resident intellectual on my favourite television talk show is something like a developing intellectual consensus on the drug question. That consensus holds one or both of these propositions to be self evident: (a, that the drug problem in America is absurdly simple, and easily solved; and (b) that the drug problem in America is a lost cause.
As it happens, each of these apparently contradictory propositions is false. Actually, both are disputed by the real experts on drugs in the United States, and there are many such experts, though not the kind the media like to focus on. And both are disbelieved by the American people, whose experience tells them, emphatically, otherwise.
The consensus has a political dimension, which helps account for its seemingly divergent aspect. In some quarters of the far Right there is a tendency to assert that the drug problem is essentially a problem of the inner city, and therefore that what it calls for, essentially, is quarantine. "If those people want to kill themselves off with drugs, let them kill themselves off with drugs", would be a crude but not too inaccurate way of summarizing this position. But this position has relatively few adherents.
On the Left, it is something else, something much more prevalent. There we see whole cadres of social scientists, abetted by whole armies of social workers, who seem to take it as catechism that the problem facing us isn't drugs at all, it's poverty, or racism, or some other equally large and intractable social phenomenon. If we want to eliminate the drug problem, these people say, we must first eliminate the "root causes" of drugs, a hopelessly daunting task at which, however, they also happen to make their living. Twenty-five years ago, no-one would have suggested that we must first address the root causes of racism before fighting segregation. We fought it, quite correctly, by passing laws against unacceptable conduct. The cause of racism was an interesting question, but the moral imperative was to end it as soon as possible and by all reasonable means: education, prevention, the media, and not least of all, the law. So too with drugs.
What unites these two views of the drug problem from opposite sides of the political spectrum is that they issue, inevitably, in a policy of neglect. To me that is a scandalous position, intellectually as well as morally scandalous. For I believe, along with those I have named as the real experts on drugs, and along with most Americans, that the drug problem is not easy but difficult - very difficult in some respects. But at the same time, and again along with those same experts and with the American people, I believe it is not a lost cause but a soluble one.
I will return to this theme, but let me pause here to note one specific issue on which the Left/Right consensus has lately come to rest; a position around which it has been attempting to build national sentiment. That position is legalization.
It is indeed bizarre to see the likes of Anthony Lewis and William F. Buckley lining up on the same side of an issue; but such is the perversity that the so-called legalization debate engenders. To call it a "debate," though, suggests that the arguments in favour of drug legalization are rigorous, substantial, and serious. They are not. They are, at bottom, a series of superficial and even disingenuous ideas that more sober minds recognize as a recipe for a public policy disaster.
Most conversations about legalization begin with the notion of taking the profit out of the drug business. But has anyone bothered to examine carefully how the drug business works? As a recent New York Times article vividly described, instances of drug dealers actually earning huge sums of money are relatively rare. There are some who do, of course, but most people in the crack business are the low level "runners" who do not make much money at all. Many of them work as
prostitutes or small-time criminals to supplement their drug earnings. True, a lot of naive kids are lured into the drug world by visions of a life filled with big money and fast cars. That's what they think the good life holds for them. But the reality is far different. Many dealers, in the long run, wind up smoking more crack than they sell. Their business becomes a form of slavery: long hours, dangerous work, small pay, and, as the Times pointed out, no health benefits either. In many cases, steady work at McDonald's over time would in fact be a step up the income scale for these kids. What does straighten them out, it seems, is not a higher minimum wage, or less stringent laws, but the dawning realization that dealing drug invariably leads to murder or to prison. And that's exactly why we have drug laws to make drug use a wholly unattractive choice.
Legalization, on the other hand, removes that incentive to stay away from life of drugs. To be honest, there are some people who are going to smoke crack whether it is legal or illegal. But by keeping it illegal, we maintain the criminal sanctions that persuade most people that the good life cannot be reached by dealing drugs.
The big lie behind every call for legalization is that making drugs legally available would "solve" the drug problem But has anyone actually thought about what that kind of legalized regime would look like? Would crack be legal? How about PCt? Or smokeable heroin? Or ice Would they all be stocked at the local convenience store, perhaps just a few blocks from an elementary school? And how much would they cost? If we taxed drugs and made them expensive, we would still have the black market and crime problems that we have today. If we sold them cheap to eliminate the black market - cocaine at, say, $10 a gram - then we would succeed in making a daily dose of cocaine well within the allowance budget of sixth-graders. When pressed, the advocates of legalization like to sound courageous by proposing that we begin b legalizing marijuana. But they have absolutely nothing to say on the tough questions of controlling other, more powerful drugs, and how they would be regulated.
As far as marijuana is concerned, let me say this: I didn't have to become drug czar to be opposed to legalized marijuana. As Secretary of Education I realized that, given the state of American education, the last thing we needed was a policy that made widely available a substance that impairs memory, concentration, and attention span; why in God's name foster the use of a drug that makes you stupid?
Now what would happen if drugs were suddenly made legal? Legalization advocates deny that the amount of drug use would be affected. I would argue that if drugs are easier to obtain, drug use will soar. In fact, we have just undergone a kind of cruel national experiment in which drugs became cheap and widely available: that experiment is called the crack epidemic. When powder cocaine was expensive and hard to get, it was found almost exclusively in the circles of the rich, the famous, or the privileged. Only when cocaine was dumped into the country, and a $3 vial of crack could be bought on street corners did we see cocaine use skyrocket - this time largely among the poor and disadvantaged. The lesson is clear: if you're in favour of drugs being sold in stores like aspirin, you're in favour of boom times for drug users and drug addicts. With legalization, drug use will go up, way up.
When drug use rises, who benefits and who pays? Legalization advocates think that the cost of enforcing drug laws is too great. But the real question - the question they never ask - is what does it cost not to enforce those laws. The price that American society would have to pay for legalized drugs, I submit, would be intolerably high. We would have more drug-related accidents at work, on the highways, and in the airways. We would have even bigger losses in worker productivity. Our hospitals would be filled with drug emergencies. We would have more school kids on dope, and that means more drop outs. More pregnant women would buy legal cocaine, and then deliver tiny, premature infants. I've seen them in hospitals across the country, it's a horrid form of child abuse and under a legalization scheme we will have a lot more of it. For those women and those babies, crack has the same effect whether it's legal or not. Now, if you add to that the costs of treatment, social welfare, and insurance, you've got the price of legalization. So I ask you again - who benefits, who pays?
But what about crime? According to legalization advocates, street crime would disappear with the repeal of our drug laws. They are wrong. Our best research indicates that most drug criminals were into crime well before they got into drugs. Making drugs legal would just be a way of subsidizing their habit, as they would continue to rob and steal to pay for food, for clothes, for entertainment. On top of this, they would carry on with their drug trafficking to undercut the legalized price of drugs and cater to teenagers who, I assume, would be restricted from buying drugs at the corner store.
All this should be old news to people who understand one clear lesson of Prohibition. When we had laws against alcohol, there was less consumption of alcohol, less alcohol-related disease, fewer drunken brawls, and a lot less public drunkenness. Furthermore, contrary to myth, there is no evidence that Prohibition caused big increases in crime. No-one is suggesting that we go back to Prohibition, but at least we should admit that legalized alcohol, which is responsible for some 100,000 deaths a year, is hardly a model for drug policy. As Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the question is not which is worse - alcohol or drugs - but can we accept both legalized alcohol and legalized drugs? The answer is no. It seems to me that on the merits of their arguments, the legalizers have no case at all.
But there is another, crucial point, unrelated to costs or benefits. Drug use especially heavy drug use—destroys human character. It destroys dignity and autonomy, it burns away the sense of responsibility, it subverts productivity, it makes a mockery of virtue. As our Founders would surely recognize, a citizenry that is perpetually in a drug induced haze doesn't bode well for the future of self-government. Libertarians don't like to hear this, but it is a truth that everyone knows who has seen drug addiction up close. People who say drug users are only hurting themselves are wrong - they hurt parents, destroy families, and ruin friendships. Drugs are a threat to the life of the mind; anyone who values that life should have nothing but contempt for drugs.
That's why I find the surrender of many of America's intellectuals to arguments for drug legalization so odd and so scandalous. For the past three months, I have been travelling the country, visiting drug-ridden neighbourhoods, seeing treatment and prevention programs in action, talking to teachers, policemen, parents, young people. These, it seems, are the real drug experts because they've witnessed the problem first hand. But, unlike some prominent residents of Princeton, Madison, Cambridge, or Palo Alto, they refuse to surrender. They are in the community, reclaiming their neighbourhoods, working with police, setting up community activities, getting addicts into treatment, saving their children.
Too many American intellectuals don't know about this and seem not to want to know. Their hostility to the national war on drugs is, I think, partly rooted in a general hostility to law enforcement and criminal justice. That's why they take refuge in pseudo-solutions like legalization, which stress only the treatment side of the problem. Whenever discussion turns to the need for more police and stronger penalties, they cry that our constitutional liberties are in jeopardy. Well, yes, they are in jeopardy, but not from drug policy. On this score, the guardians of our Constitution can sleep easy. Constitutional liberties are in jeopardy, instead, from drugs themselves, which every day scorch the earth of our common freedom. Yes, sometimes the police go too far, and when they do they should be held accountable. But these excursions from the law are the exception. Meanwhile, drug dealers violate our rights everyday as a rule, as a norm, as their modus operandi. Why can't our civil libertarians see that?
When we are not being told by critics that law enforcement threatens our liberties, we are being told that it won't work. I would like to explain that law enforcement does work and why it must work. Several weeks ago I was in Wichita, Kansas, talking to a teenage boy who was now in his fourth treatment program. Every time he had finished a previous round of treatment, he found himself back on the streets, surrounded by the same cheap dope and tough hustlers who had gotten him started in the first place. He was tempted, he was pressured, and he gave in. Virtually any expert on drug treatment will tell you that, for most people, no therapy in the world can fight temptation on that scale. As long as drugs are found on any street corner, no amount of treatment, no amount of education can finally stand against them. Yes, we need drug treatment and drug education. But drug treatment and drug education need law enforcement, and that's why our strategy calls for a bigger criminal justice system: as a form of drug prevention.
To the Americans who are waging the drug war in their own front yards every day this is nothing new, nothing startling. In the San Jose section of Albuquerque, new Mexico, just two weeks ago, I spoke to Rudy Chavez and Jack Candelaria, and police chief Sam Baca. They wanted to start a youth centre that would keep their kids safe from the depredations of the street. Somehow it never worked - until together they set up a police station right in the heart of drug-dealing territory. Then it worked. Together with the police, the law-abiding residents cleared the area and made it safe for them and their children to walk outside their homes. The youth centre began to thrive.
Scenes like this are being played out all across the US. I've seen them in Tulsa, Dallas, Tampa, Omaha, Des Moines, Seattle, New York. Americans - many of them poor, black or Hispanic - have figured out what the armchair critics haven't. Drugs may threaten to destroy their neighbourhoods, but they refuse to stand by and let it happen. They have discovered that it is possible not only to fight back, but to win. In some elite circles the talk may be only of the sad state of the helpless and the hopeless, but while these circles talk on, the helpless and the hopeless themselves are carrying out a national drug policy. They are fighting back.
When I think of these scenes I'm reminded of what John Jacob, president of the Urban League, said recently: drugs are destroying more black families than poverty ever did. And I'm thankful that many of these poor families have the courage to fight drugs now, rather than declaring themselves passive victims of root causes.
America's intellectuals, and here I think particularly of liberal intellectuals, have spent much of the last nine years decrying the social programs of two Republican administrations in the name of the defenceless poor. But today, on the one outstanding issue that disproportionately hurts the poor, that is wiping out many of the poor, where are the liberal intellectuals to be found? They are on the editorial and op-ed pages, and in magazines, telling us with an ignorant sneer that our drug policy won't work. Many universities, too, which have been quick to take on the challenges of sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism, seem content on the drug issue to wag a finger at us, or to point it mindlessly at American society in general. In public policy schools, there is no shortage of arms control scholars. Isn't it time we had more drug control scholars?
The failure to get serious about the drug issue is, I think, a failure of civic courage. The kind of courage shown by many who have been among the main victims of the drug scourge. But it betokens as well a betrayal of the self declared mission of intellectuals as the bearers of society's conscience. There may be reasons for this reluctance, this hostility, this failure, but not all crusades led by the United States government are brutish, corrupt, and sinister. What is brutish, corrupt, and sinister is the murder and mayhem being committed in our cities' streets. One would think that a little more concern and serious thought would come from those who claim to care so deeply about America's problems.
I have a simple message for America's pundits and academic cynics - get serious about drug policy. We are grappling with complicated, stubborn policy issues and I encourage you to join us. Tough work lies ahead, and we need serious minds to focus on how we should use the tools that we have in the most effective way.
I came to this job with realistic expectations. I am not promising a drug free America by next week, or even by next year, but that doesn't mean that success is out of reach. Success will come in slow, careful steps. Its enemies are timidity, petulance, and false expectations. But its three greatest foes remain surrender, despair, and neglect. So, for the sake of their fellow citizens, I invite America's deep thinkers to get on with the program, or at the very least, to get in the game.