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 [email protected]

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