President Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, should be commended for initiating some basic reforms in U.S. drug policy. One of his first sensible acts was to drop the phrase "War on Drugs." "Regardless of how you try to explain to people that it's a ‘war on drugs' or a ‘war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he explained. "We're not at war with people in this country."
As the former chief of the Seattle Police, he lived under some of the most progressive drug laws in the nation. When it comes to addressing the basic premise of our failed drug policies, however, he's trapped in a linguistic box.
When asked about the "L" word, his oft-repeated response is "Legalization is not in my vocabulary nor is it in the president's vocabulary." That word isn't in my political vocabulary either. It's a clumsy term that polarizes the debate and bars the nuanced discussion we need to have.
The debate over illegal drugs today is cleaved into a false dichotomy of two polar extremes: prohibition versus legalization. That's partly thanks to our laws. Title VII in the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 says the office shall "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize" drugs currently deemed illicit. Drug czars who respond otherwise would be fired, in all likelihood. This is because drug warriors have spent years co-opting the term, making it so radioactive that many voters think legalization means "anything goes" free-market anarchy. To them, the term evokes images of selling heroin in candy machines to children.
What we need is regulation instead of prohibition, because we need to have more control over these substances, not less. Because we have witnessed the damage illicit drugs can cause, we have allowed ourselves to fall prey to one of the drug warriors' great myths: Keeping drugs illegal will protect us. But drug prohibition doesn't mean we control drugs; it means we give up the right to control them because we can't regulate an industry we drive underground. We have made a deliberate choice not to regulate these drugs and are paying the price for the chaos that followed. These are lessons we failed to learn from our disastrous attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
The debate reminds me of the old story popularly attributed to Winston Churchill. At a dinner party one night, a drunken Churchill asked an aristocratic woman whether she would sleep with him for a million pounds. "Maybe," the woman said coyly. "Would you sleep with me for one pound?" Churchill then asked. "Of course not, what kind of woman do you think I am?" the woman responded indignantly. "Madam, we've already established what kind of woman you are," replied Churchill, "now we're just negotiating the price."
Once we bring the drug debate into the broad spectrum of regulatory solutions, many options are back on the table and we can "negotiate the price." Some of us favor stricter regulation and others more liberal (depending on the drug). For instance, marijuana could be taxed and regulated, but meth would not. Legalization, on the other hand, is a term that fails to clarify the issue. Bazookas are legally produced, but I can't simply go out and buy one. That's because they're regulated.
Here's the question our policymakers should address: "Do you see the problem as a simple dichotomy between these two extremes or do you think there is a wide spectrum of regulatory options from which to choose?" In other words, should we bring these substances under the domain of the law or continue to let criminals control the market? I suspect Kerlikowske's response would be more nuanced and thoughtful.