Editorial: Now You Can Ask Me Why 12/2/05

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]

David Borden
Two weeks ago in my editorial titled "Tell Me Why," I confessed that after 12 years in the movement I am still uncertain as to how best to make the case for ending drug prohibition (e.g. legalization) during the 10 or 15 seconds that sometimes is all that's available, and I asked for readers suggestions for "sound bites" we can use.

More than 75 Chronicle readers responded to that request. Though not every response qualified as a 15-second sound bite, all of them had some use and intellectual value for thinking about the issue. Apologies go to those whose ideas I am not printing here -- the format does not permit a complete listing -- perhaps we will post a full compendium in the near future. Also, if you did not explicitly give me permission to use your name, I have not done so, unless you are a known public figure in this issue.

One e-mail titled "short and sweet" had a suggestion that indeed fit that bill: "Drug prohibition is a waste of time, resources, and lives. It hurts people who need our help. E-mail me at ___ and I'll tell you more." The advantage of this line, in addition to its shortness, is that it expresses the anti-prohibitionist viewpoint in terms of values that most people share -- not hurting people, especially the people we say we're trying to help, not wasting resources on a system that doesn't work. Something it doesn't do is provide the listener, who might think prohibition is helpful, with our arguments as to why it is not. But it is still pretty good, and giving out the e-mail address is a nice touch.

"It didn't work for alcohol, and it's not working for drugs" -- a succinct expression of an historical analogy that people are likely to understand. From the same reader: "It is a public health issue, not a criminal issue, and we don't lock up fat people." "Using drugs does not make you a criminal -- just ask George Bush." "The war on drugs creates more casualties worldwide than drug usage does." Another reader offered this one on the same idea: "We were smart enough to repeal alcohol prohibition. What's different?"

Another reader offered these among others: "Because legalization allows for regulation and control." "Because the last time somebody shot up the neighborhood in a liquor store turf war was the '30's." "Because I need protection from murderers and rapists
more than I need protection from junkies and stoners."

LEAP's Howard Wooldridge, whose picture with his horse and cross-country traveling companion Misty, said he has used the following throughout the nation with positive effect: "Why do cops want to legalize drugs? To focus on drunk drivers and child molesters, cut crime in half, and stop funding terrorists."

Bob Newland of South Dakota wrote, "There's a lot of evidence that prohibition laws create massive corruption and reduce the effectiveness of programs designed to help people who use harmful substances to excess."

Jay Fleming of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (whose "Cops Say Legalize Drugs -- Ask Me Why" t-shirt inspired this discussion) assured me you get used to this if you wear the t-shirt enough and had some great suggestions: "a 12-year-old can walk into a bar to try and buy alcohol and get thrown out. The same 12-year-old walks up to any drug dealer and get drugs." "The only one controlling the purity of drugs, where drugs are sold, to who, and where the profits go is the drug dealer. If you want to control something, it must be regulated." "There are no gangs fighting over whiskey territories or anything else that's legal. Gangs are fighting over territories covering drugs. Drug prohibition creates a black market with enormous profits that attracts the criminal element and gangs. With marijuana literally worth its weight in gold, as long as people can grow gold in their basement this will not stop."

"jackl" of the blogosphere suggested, "No one would suggest putting millions of alcohol consumers in prisons and their children in foster care as a way of 'protecting kids.'"

Mark Haden of Canada suggested, "All jails have lots of drugs in them. If prohibition does not work when we have individuals guarded and in cages it will not work on our streets," and "The black market [created by prohibition] produces violence, crime, disease, corruption and death and sets up a system that makes drugs widely available and engages our youth."

This one strives to cover a number of the many prohibition-related problems in a breath: "Because it doesn't work! Drugs are as plentiful as ever and almost everything we identify as the 'drug problem' is not inherent in the drugs but is a direct result of prohibition; such as: crime, violence, overflowing prisons, lack of treatment facilities, corruption, third world upheaval, the evisceration of civil rights, destroyed lives..."

Consistency is a prohibition issue: "Why have the presently illicit drugs been selected for prohibition while similar drugs have not?," Australia's Peter Watney wrote.

Then there is the futility and counterproductiveness of it: "Because 60 years of the present policy has made things worse." "Because there are more drug users dying today than when drugs were not prohibited."

A lot of people out there don't buy the freedom or rights argument for drugs, unfortunately (and inconsistently), but that doesn't make it unimportant. If this is the kind of argument you want to make, our readers had some ideas: "It is my mind and body." "Freedom to pursue happiness." "Freedom from incarceration." "Freedom to get into trouble. Freedom *not* to get into trouble." "Under what moral authority does one adult punish another adult for ingesting harmful substances?"

I was not thinking of marijuana-specific arguments when I put this question out, but that is an approach that many advocates take (because of marijuana's relative mildness and safety), and we got some suggestions for it: "Because 800,000 Americans are arrested each year for marijuana, which is clearly non-addictive and less harmful than alcohol." "No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose; it is a natural plant that has been used by humans for thousands of years. Also, it has a number of medicinal properties." Robert Holsinger excerpted from his blog: "Marihuana arrests mess up peoples' lives far more frequently than the herb itself."

More short and sweet ones: "End the drug war, save lives." "Because the fruits of drug prohibition are crime, corruption, violence and death." "90 years and still no light at the end of the tunnel" (Timothy Colgan of Washington state). "When drugs are outlawed, only outlaws will have drugs" (Robert Cook). "We've got bigger fish to fry, and better ways to spend our tax dollars" (also Robert Cook). "It just doesn't make sense when you look at the strategy and the results" -- good if you're not sure what someone's beliefs are, according to the author. "Prohibition is an experiment which has failed" (Dave Michon). "Because dealers don't ask for ID!"

"The war on drugs is a failure, it costs billions and has not stopped anyone from getting drugs if they want to. We should stop wasting tax money on a war that cannot be won any more than prohibition could stop drinking."

"Anytime you make something in demand illegal, you merely create a black market. Would you rather the profits go to criminals or farmers and taxes?" "Who do you want to control your children's access to drugs, drugstores or dealers?"

So, I could narrow these down more, but I'm not sure that would be helpful. The fact is that different advocates will feel more comfortable with different arguments, and different arguments will work better with different listeners in different situations. One the other hand, when there eventually is a specific media campaign to take this on, we may need to pick three or so and stick to them if we are to be effective. Let me know which ones are your favorites and how well they seem to work for you. And thanks again to all of you proffered suggestions. This is still a work in progress, but I feel more ready than before to say "now you can ask me why."

-- END --
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Issue #413 -- 12/2/05

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


recent blog posts "In the Trenches" activist feed


Update and Appeal: DRCNet in 2006 | Editorial: Now You Can Ask Me Why | Offer and Appeal: The Great Drug War, by Arnold Trebach | Feature: Plaintiffs Wanted -- ACLU to File Lawsuit Challenging Federal Ban on Financial Aid for College Student Drug Offenders | Feature: Conference to Plot Drug War Exit Strategy Gets Underway in Seattle | Feature: Los Angeles Event Raises Funds for HEA Victims | DRCNet Book Review: "Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town," by Nate Blakeslee (2005, Public Affairs Press, 450 pp., $26.95 HB) | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Law Enforcement: California Drug Task Force Must Hold Public Meetings, Court Rules | Asia: Singapore Executes Australian for Drug Smuggling | Marijuana: Marijuana Crop Worth $1.5 Billion in One California County Alone, Paper Estimates | Silliness: Two Florida Grade School Girls Arrested for Fake Marijuana Prank | Europe: England to Drug Test Arrested Burglars and Muggers | Latin America: Mexico Allows State, Local Cops to Join Drug War | Web Scan: New "Change The Climate" Animation | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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