As the debate over the efficacy of the Drug War moves toward center stage in the political arena in the United States, the primary tactic of the prohibitionists has become clear. Anyone who espouses any measure of drug policy reform, no matter if it's medical marijuana, syringe exchange, chronic pain control, mandatory minimum sentence reform, opiate maintenance, or even industrial hemp, is being labeled by prohibitionists, from Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey to Senator Joe Biden, as a "legalizer." It is the new "L-word," and the prohibitionists hope that it will do for them what the old "L-word" did for Republican candidates beginning in the 1980's, tar their opponents as extremists while simultaneously forcing them to disavow their own beliefs.
This strategy, like virtually every political strategy adopted in the last days of the twentieth-century, is based not upon guesswork, but upon polling. Polls show that when the American people are asked the question "should the United states legalize all drugs?" the majority of respondents will answer "no". In fact, depending on the poll, a negative answer will be given by between 75 and 85% of those questioned. There are several problems with these numbers, however. First and foremost is that there is no single definition of "legalization". Does it mean that methamphetamine will be sold out of corner stores? No one is advocating that, but to many people, that is the image conjured up by the question.
A second and related problem is that up until now, the American people have had virtually no exposure to the serious and common-sense arguments against prohibition. Most people believe that advocates of "legalization" are exactly what the drug warriors portray them as, drug using extremists who would unleash a torrent of dangerous substances onto society with no thought to the consequences. But judging from the respected names who have recently come out to publicly question the status quo, that is most certainly not true either.
But in systematically hurling the new "L-word" at any and all reformers in tones reminiscent of those used in conjunction with other quasi-epithets such as "racist" or "communist," or "pervert", the prohibitionists are achieving, perhaps intentionally, an even more important victory: they are tempting, even forcing reformers to refute the label as a perceived precondition of effectively advocating their position. "I am not a legalizer." Once that has been accomplished, reformers are left backpedaling, rather than attacking. And rather than launching a full-scale assault on the inherently flawed and globally disastrous policy of Prohibition, reformers are left arguing for harm-reduction in one form or another, essentially surrendering to the notion that of course, criminal prohibition is the right thing to do, if only you'd let us make it a bit more humane in this or that specific area.
The sound of reformers backing away from the air-tight arguments against prohibition must be music to drug warriors' ears. There is no defense, historically or logically, for prohibition. It simply does not work. And worse, it invariably corrupts, it systematically infringes on individual liberties, it grossly enriches and empowers criminal enterprises, and it insures that we, as a society, have no control over who is selling what to whom. Especially with regard to children.
But to acknowledge, explicitly or otherwise, that prohibition is indeed the right system, and that we are only advocating reforms to its implementation, puts logic, or at least the appearance of logic, back into the drug warriors' court. If we agree that drugs should remain illegal (prohibited) then it is rational, or so it would seem, to argue against reforms -- syringe exchange, sentencing reform, low-priority enforcement -- which would weaken that system. Prohibition, were it possible that it could succeed, would certainly require strict enforcement. Especially if are talking about the theoretical (under that system) elimination of access to drugs by children.
As reformers, we must not fall into this trap. Prohibition does not, cannot, will not work. Oh, it works just fine if your goals are to consolidate power in the hands of the state, control minority populations by imprisoning an enormous percentage of their young males, funnel wealth to a privileged few in the defense, corrections, pharmaceutical and other industries, use it as an excuse to infringe on the sovereignty of poorer nations, justify enormous government expenditures on law enforcement and the military, insure a steady source of untraceable cash for secret operations or drastically increase the ability of governments at all levels to seize cash and property from citizens without due process. But in the areas that prohibition is claimed to address, preserving communities, reducing crime and protecting children, it is -- and by the ironclad laws of economics will always be -- an utter and disastrous failure.
This is the argument that must be made. It is an argument for which there is no answer, and one which the prohibitionists are desperate to avoid. It has been the prohibitionists' refusal to publicly debate the facts, their unwillingness to defend their system in any forum in which there is articulate opposition, that has delayed their day of reckoning for so long in the first place. It is only now, when the reform movement, through the power of prominent supporters, the work of dedicated activists, and yes, the advent of electronic communications, has reached the point that it can no longer be ignored, that they are being forced to come out in public, in the mainstream media, and defend themselves and their system.
The fascinating corollary to the numbers which say that 75-85% of the American people "oppose legalization" is that nearly the same number believe that the Drug War is not working. And keeping in mind that our current president was elected by just 22% of eligible voters, surely, given the national stage which has so recently become open to us we can activate those who already understand the issue, and educate a small percentage of those who see the current failure but are nevertheless afraid of the amorphous "L-word." For the first time in the 80-year history of Drug Prohibition, those of us who advocate reform are being called upon to explain to the American people why the prohibitionist system is antithetical to the results they seek. And it is up to us to do just that.
"Are you a legalizer"?
"Well, it's funny, there are almost as many different visions of a sane drug policy as there are reasons to get rid of the one we have. In truth, I'm an anti-prohibitionist, and I'll tell you why..."
Adam J. Smith