The cocaine conversation: balancing the drug debate

Aubrey Murray | Op-Ed Submission

In December, a Pennsylvania teenager asked Obama if he had considered legalizing drugs to stimulate the economy. The audience broke into laughter, and Obama deflected after complimenting the boy’s “boldness.”

I posed a similar question to Jack Riley, a senior member of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and a panelist at last week’s “Within our Borders: The Mexican Drug War” event hosted by Sigma Iota Rho. I asked how the War on Drugs  continues to be a good use of U.S. resources and wondered if violence could be neutralized in this and other countries by legalizing and regulating illicit substances as part of the formal economy (I realize that President Obama has shied from using this terminology for ideological reasons. In the DEA, though, this change has been interpreted as purely nomenclature).

He cited social reasons, such as addiction problems and the breakdown of the nuclear community to defend the War on Drugs. “I have seen drugs do terrible things,” he rued. We waited as he ruminated through an archive of disparaging memories, but he seemed to shake these as he reached for the next question. Frustrating.

Instead of fleshing out an argument that has been routinely pushed aside, Riley justified the War on Drugs with a weak morality that does not overcome the extensive reasons to end it. His are the same absolutions made to advocate failed policies: Prohibition and censorship were also defended by a patrimonial concern for people’s welfare. It’s a nebulous reasoning which cannot withstand the tornado of economic, political and diplomatic impetuses to stop the war. Thus, I figured I would help Mr. Riley (and his like-minded colleagues) develop an argument that moves beyond abstract sensationalisms and into one which addresses its counter on more substantial levels.

I apologize if my premise suggests a hunger for drugs or controversy. I (usually) want neither of these. I do want answers. I want a rationalization for a War on Drugs that spends an exorbitant amount of tax dollars, exhausts a huge amount of manpower, and ignites more violence than it quells. So, I decided to lend critical thinking and some skills from high school debate team to bolster the pro-war argument to compete in a fair and balanced discussion. I would prefer a justification for the War on Drugs that can compete with the substantial argument to end it. Social and moral explanations can no longer stand against the economic havoc wreaked on governments in the absence of drug revenue and the extreme violence resulting from the struggle between the black market actors and the American-supported police forces. The other side, in the form of Jack Riley, has more evidence in his arsenal than he demonstrated at Wednesday’s debate.

Before we proceed, allow me to qualify the opposition: Domestic prohibition of drugs and foreign military aid total a huge amount of annual spending. A Harvard economist  estimated that legalizing drugs would save the government $76.8 billion per year in police power, convict incarcerations and tax revenue (Conducted by Jeffrey A. Miron in 2008). In Colombia, that figure becomes even more significant. The cocaine trade contributes an estimated 7.6 percent to the annual GDP. As long as U.S. presence continues there, that money remains untaxed and the government loses significant revenue.

The opposition believes that drug use should be a consumer’s prerogative. They liken drugs to legal mind-altering substances and believe that the government has drawn an arbitrary line between illicit and permissible materials. The justifications for scaling back the drug war appeal to the entire political spectrum: (fiscal) conservatives will appreciate cuts in government spending, libertarians don’t support government restrictions, and liberals would find appeal in restrictions on police funding. Convincing, huh? The asymmetrical argument seems to benefit advocates of legalizing drugs. They have economic, political and social evidence to support their claims.

These circumstances require a more substantial counter-argument. Mr. Riley, I recommend you start on neutral, relatable levels. Appeal to economic and political instead of social and moral rationales. For example:

Drugs impede productivity. If one employee comes to work under the influence, he or she will accomplish less and in some instances, endanger him- or herself and other workers. When those actions aggregate to a drugged workforce, serious consequences can result. Should we legalize drugs, monetary gains made by tax revenue and enforcement expenses could be negated by slashes to the GDP and debilitation of the workforce.

Health care also adds an important anti-drug element: People hurt themselves using drugs. Each drug brings its own set of problems, but any logical person can estimate that drugs are detrimental to one’s health. Now that health care works on a nationalized level, drug injuries will cost all taxpayers.

Violence presents another pillar of persuasion. Legalizing a carrier amount or decriminalizing certain carrier amounts sets the black market aflame. Breached drug deals often result in struggle between subversive actors. Furthermore, amphetamine highs lead to a higher propensity towards reckless violence and confrontational attitudes. Violence costs taxpayers in police and enforcement expenses, and injuries incurred by dissidents will show up in healthcare costs.

Diplomatically, Mr. Riley, I would recommend you keep a message of mutual beneficence. Calls of American Imperialism can be met with enumerating results achieved by U.S.-sponsored eradication programs and enforcement interventionism. Drug wars have ruined democratic systems in Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia. Leaders of cartels earn enough money to bribe politicians and promote chaos through violence on the streets. The efforts of the DEA take money and power from government subversives and foster democracies into more legitimate and functional entities.

Mr. Riley, drugs do hurt people and communities. But they can also damage the workforce, rack up healthcare bills, ignite violence, and threaten the sanctity of democracy in ally countries. Be creative! You have spades of information with which to defend your livelihood. Move beyond heartbreaking didactic tales and meet the drug debate with tangible counter-points. Illustrate with bold and assertive hand gestures! Your emotional tactics encourage a blind and irrational adherence to your impassioned logic. You’re perusing a strategy of evasion that relies on strong principles and weak facts. I believe that you can substantiate an anti-drug argument with more than morality and sensationalisms. Expand to meet your oppositions in realms of real debate and you might find that you’ll satisfy your tie-dyed, sandaled opponent before moving on to the next question.

Aubrey Murray is a sophomore in Arts and Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at amurray@wust.edu

  • Kevin Warrens

    I believe Riley has a terrific point. Riley has tons of experience and would know a lot more then many people on drugs. Just think. WHat if drugs were legal? Of course there is always going to be drugs. Bur we should not make it legal. Just look at what is happening in Mexico. Learn the subject before you fly back on a man who has been in the job and knows it for 25 years.

  • Charlene thomas

    Hello, this comment is for Mr. Kyle. Hi, I believe that what Ms. Murray is trying to do is hold a neutral position in her article. She’s not taking sides, she just trying to demonstrate that if someone is debating you from a political and economic standpoint, then you should like wise, do the same so that your argument can stand as firm as the opponents or maybe come out to be even stronger. The opponents of the drug war have proven their point about stopping the drug war and that is to allow drugs to become apart of the economy because doing so will benefit America economically. She’s telling Mr. Riley, who is for the Drug War, to respond back and come strong. Don’t just use morality and sensationalism as your only reasons for justifying why drugs should be legalized, eventhough these are deep and touching (pathos), (something that the opponents on the other side do not have for illegal drugs can’t be morally justified) but also prove how illegal drugs have a negative economic and political impact on society. If he argues this way then he would have a challenging arguement.

  • Malcolm Kyle

    I have great trouble making sense of your article; you appear to be attacking the failed policy of prohibition while at the same time suggesting even more shameful cognitive dissonance as a way of defending or prolonging it.

    Prohibition is a sickening horror and the ocean of incompetence, corruption and human wreckage it has left in its wake is almost endless.

    Prohibition has decimated generations and criminalized millions for a behavior which is entwined in human existence, and for what other purpose than to uphold the defunct and corrupt thinking of a minority of misguided, self-righteous Neo-Puritans and degenerate demagogues who wish nothing but unadulterated destruction on the rest of us.

    Based on the unalterable proviso that drug use is essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behavior which has been with us since the dawn of time, any serious reading on the subject of past attempts at any form of drug prohibition would point most normal thinking people in the direction of sensible regulation.

    By its very nature, prohibition cannot fail but create a vast increase in criminal activity, and rather than preventing society from descending into anarchy, it actually fosters an anarchic business model – the international Drug Trade. Any decisions concerning quality, quantity, distribution and availability are then left in the hands of unregulated, anonymous, ruthless drug dealers, who are interested only in the huge profits involved.

    Many of us have now, finally, wised up to the fact that the best avenue towards realistically dealing with drug use and addiction is through proper regulation which is what we already do with alcohol & tobacco, clearly two of our most dangerous mood altering substances. But for those of you whose ignorant and irrational minds traverse a fantasy plane of existence, you will no doubt remain sorely upset with any type of solution that does not seem to lead to the absurd and unattainable utopia of a drug free society.

    There is an irrefutable connection between drug prohibition and the crime, corruption, disease and death it causes. If you are not capable of understanding this connection then maybe you’re using something far stronger than the rest of us. Anybody ‘halfway bright’, and who’s not psychologically challenged, should be capable of understanding that it is not simply the demand for drugs that creates the mayhem, it is our refusal to allow legal businesses to meet that demand.

    No amount of money, police powers, weaponry, diminution of rights and liberties, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safer, only an end to prohibition can do that. How much longer are you willing to foolishly risk your own survival by continuing to ignore the obvious, historically confirmed solution?

    If you still support the kool aid mass suicide cult of prohibition, and erroneously believe that you can win a war without logic and practical solutions, then prepare yourself for even more death, corruption, terrorism, sickness, imprisonment, unemployment, foreclosed homes, and the complete loss of the rule of law and the Bill of Rights.

    “A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
    Abraham Lincoln

    The only thing prohibition successfully does is prohibit regulation & taxation while turning even our schools and prisons into black markets for drugs. Regulation would mean the opposite!