Why We Can’t Legalize Drugs

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on March 12th, 2009 - Last updated: March 6th, 2020
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We can’t legalize drugs – despite political, economic, even survival pressures to do so – because of deep underlying American mindsets against drugs, the two primary ones being that we believe continuing drug use is, or causes, a disease, and that parents can’t bear to imagine their kids taking drugs. As to the disease mindset, it is maintained and promoted by both pro- and anti-legalization proponents.

Mexico’s national nightmare, in which drug cartels are overwhelming the country’s law enforcement agencies, is the most serious political consequence to date of the current policy of “banning” drugs. (Banning is in quotes since drugs are all around us.) At the same time, California’s multibillion dollar sales of marijuana can’t be taxed while the State drowns in red ink. Yet the Obama Administration won’t contemplate the possibility of legalizing marijuana. Why not?

Obama’s selection of Seattle police chief R. Gil Kerlikowske as American Drug Czar signals the Obama team’s rejection of the Bush emphasis on interdicting drug supplies and arresting drug users. VP Joe Biden introduced Kerlikowske with the invocation that “combating drugs requires a comprehensive approach that includes enforcement, prevention, and treatment.” Kerlikowske himself noted, “The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them.”

But the major policy debate over drugs had already flown past the office of Drug Czar by the time Kerlikowske was selected. The infiltration of the America’s domestic drug trafficking by Mexican cartels, illustrating both the porousness of our southern border and the continuing gargantuan illicit drug trade in the United States, now dominates American drug policy discussions. And the Obama Administration has indicated no slackening of American attacks on supplier nations’ drug production and drug interdiction when it comes to this emergency.

Curtailing drug production and trafficking is an important motivation for Obama’s expansion of the War in Afghanistan. And military options are the only ones being considered in the war that has erupted around Mexican drug commerce. The only issue being argued in Congressional hearings is how much to step up our military support of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Changing American drug laws is simply not on the table. When MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano,only military and border policing options were discussed.

Two incurable American prejudices rule out the idea that changing the legal status of drugs can impact an increasingly out-of-control world drug trade.

1. Drug use is an uncontrollable disease. In one striking way, opponents to American drug laws and defenders maintain the same idea — drug use is a disease. For reformers, this supports the idea that users should be treated, and not imprisoned. This is behind former Senator Biden’s introduction of the “Recognizing Addiction as a Disease Act of 2007,” which states: “Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain’s structure. . . (as) seen in people who abuse drugs. . .”

And, hence, the purpose of the bill: changing the name of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to “National Institute on Diseases of Addiction.” (Will this then include gambling?) Note Biden’s segue from “addiction” to “abuse” above. So anyone who takes drugs — like marijuana — suffers from this disease? What about the large majority of people — like the last three presidents — who explore drugs (including not just marijuana) and move on? Will treating all such people as addicts really improve their and America’s situation in regard to drugs?

One person who favors the coalescence of the terms “use,” “abuse,” and “addiction” is John Walters, Kerlikowske’s predecessor as Drug Czar in the Bush Administration. But his purpose in doing so is to perpetuate drugs’ pariah status. Defending the great success of his tenure, Walters argued strictly on disease lines in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that “Drug Legalization Isn’t the Answer”:

Substance abuse is a disease. Until recently, we failed to grasp the nature of this disease and how to reduce the suffering it causes. For decades, we did not want to believe that alcohol or drugs could have the power to take over our lives, despite the evidence we witnessed when our loved ones grappled with drug addiction. We did not understand how this disease could alter personality and steal individual freedom. We have paid a high price for this confusion.

Biden, Kerlikowske, Walters, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse maintain the same attitude towards drugs. Thus there will be no change from Bush to Obama in this regard.

2. Kids should never take drugs. Discussing drugs in response to the Mexican-American crisis today, Joe Scarborough introduced the idea of legalizing marijuana on MCNBC’s Morning Joe show. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s medical expert and a cohost on the show, quickly and decisively answered, “No. Marijuana makes you dumb. It’s plain and simple: I don’t want my kids smoking dope” — even though the large majority of teens will take drugs, drink illicitly, and be prescribed psychoactive medications.

And, so, illegal drug use extends endlessly on the horizon in front of us.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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