The War on Drugs is a Failure, But That Doesn't Mean We Should Legalize Weed

ByGabriel Grand

This article is the second segment of a three-part interview with Dr. Kevin Sabet, an outspoken advocate against drug legalization in the United States and co-founder of Project SAM (Smarter Approaches to Marijuana). Read Part One, titled, “Marijuana Legalization: Get Ready for the Rise of Evil Cannabis Megacorporations,” here.

The term “War on Drugs” was popularized by the American media in 1971 after a press conference in which President Nixon declared drug use “public enemy number one.” Ever since then, the U.S. government has enforced strict prohibitionist policies when it comes to marijuana and other illegal drugs.

Source: The Guardian

Yet with the rise of the legalization movement nationwide, an ever-growing number of Americans are questioning the wisdom of spending $51 billion annually to keep millions in prison on nonviolent drug charges.

Nevertheless, there are those who call for moderation in our approach to drug policy, cautioning that legalization could give rise to unintended negative consequences, including an exploitative multi-billion dollar marijuana industry. In the second segment of this continuing discussion with Kevin Sabet, Ph.D, a leading drug legalization skeptic, I explored the anti-legalization perspective of America’s effort to combat drugs.

Gabe Grand: Is the War on Drugs a failure?

Kevin Sabet: I don’t use the term, “War on Drugs.” I don’t know anybody who uses that term unless they’re against the current approach. It’s a clever term used by legalization advocates. We know that term doesn’t poll well—nobody thinks that the “War on Drugs” is a success.

I will say that we know that there are far fewer users of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines than cigarettes and alcohol. Does that mean everything that we’re doing is a complete success? Of course not. We need to be smarter with our sentencing, we need to make sure that folks who are overdosing on opioids have anti-drug agents like Narcan available to them. We don’t need to legalize drugs in order to do those things.

Would decriminalization (decreasing criminal penalties for drug crimes while keeping the drug market prohibited) be a reasonable alternative to legalization?

I think that if we define decriminalization as not stigmatizing or criminalizing low-level users, yes. But I also think that just giving somebody a ticket, leaving them alone, and waiting until they get into a car accident for them to get treatment is a problem. That’s why the current paradigm needs to be changed.

Portugal eliminated penalties for drug users over a decade ago. Marijuana possession is now no more harshly punished than illegal parking. Proponents of decriminalization have called the experiment a success. Do you see it that way?

The results of Portugal’s policies have been mixed. Drug use has actually gone up, but drug-related deaths have gone down. I think the Portuguese experiment is definitely one that we can learn from, but it’s not pure decriminalization, it’s not anywhere near legalization, and people are very confused about it in the U.S.

I’m not sure that the people who see Portugal as a success really realize what Portugal has done. Portugal hasn’t truly decriminalized drugs. Instead, they put folks who are found in possession of small amounts of drugs through a different system that’s really not civil or criminal. They have a dissuasion panel that consists of a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal adviser that recommends treatment, a fine, or other options. Frankly, that’s very similar to what we’re trying to advocate for those found with marijuana.

Would Portugal’s brand of community-style drug dissuasion work in the U.S. on a larger scale?

That’s something we’d have to think about. I mean, here’s a country with 3 million Catholics and we’re trying to export a policy to the U.S. I think it’s something that we could certainly look at in terms of a local approach for low-level use to try to persuade people to go to treatment. That’s still very different from U.S.-style legalization or decriminalization, though.

How should the law treat small-time marijuana offenders?

For marijuana, folks should not be given long prison sentences for small amounts of use. They shouldn’t have their life ruined by an arrest record. Instead, they really should have a health assessment to see if they have a problem. It amazes me when legalization advocates say they want to treat this like a health issue and then their version of that is a $100 fine and people just go on their way. That would be like treating early stage cancer—which is a health issue—by saying,  “We’re not going to deal with it until the fourth stage, when you need massive amounts of chemotherapy and intrusive procedures.”

At what point should treatment come in?

I don’t think we should wait for people who have early signs of marijuana problems to exhibit really bad signs before they receive treatment. Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody who uses marijuana needs treatment. What it means is that we need to do health assessments to see what people need—maybe it’s an intervention—and then treat them accordingly. Drug use shouldn’t be ignored, and it shouldn’t be promoted.

How should we treat people who may have a drug problem but won’t acknowledge it?

Unless that person drives under the influence or is taking care of a child under the influence, there’s nothing to get that abuse to the attention of the authorities. And I’m not advocating banging on everybody’s doors and making them pee in a cup to see whether they have a problem or not. So those people are not going to be targeted. Legalization is not about the quirky uncle or the artsy neighbor smoking pot once in a while in the privacy of their own home.

What about the people—mostly minorities—living in marginalized communities who get arrested at much higher rates than middle-class, suburban pot smokers?

Project SAM is one of the first anti-legalization organizations that says, front and center, “We need to look at the disproportionate amount of arrests [among minorities] and reform police practices.” However, there’s a reason why there are eight times as many liquor stores in poor communities of color than in upper-class white communities. It’s because those communities can’t write a $50,000 check to Betty Ford if there’s a treatment problem.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The tobacco and liquor industries target those communities. That’s why those communities are very resentful of the impact of advertising and product placement of tobacco and alcohol. The legalization movement says, “Yes, there’s a big problem with racially disproportionate arrests, so we should legalize marijuana.” We reject that conclusion because that’s going to make matters worse.

Russ Belville of the National Cannabis Coalition recently called you and your colleagues at Project SAM “kinder, gentler drug warriors”—the accusation, of course, being that you use a softer touch to advocate for harsh prohibitionist policies.

I think that’s campaign lingo talk that’s not really grounded in any evidence. We’re partnering with groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Medical Association. We’re partnering with the science that says that the more drugs that are available, the more they’ll be used and abused. That science also says that for some people—but not everybody—marijuana can be a problem, and once we legalize and expand use, we’re just going to have more people with those problems. We’ll always have people who don’t like what we’re doing, but I’m really more interested in the science than in campaign talk.

Let’s talk science: A recent study by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) found that, since 1990, illegal drug prices have general decreased while drug purity has increased. Those results suggest that attempts to limit the availability of illegal drugs are failing.

Well first of all, that study was done by very well-known legalization advocates, including Evan Wood. I did a CNN opinion piece recently that directly counters that study. Second, it depends on what years you’re looking at and what drugs. In the last eight years, for example, the availability and use of cocaine has gone way down. Actually, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana have themselves decreased by 30 percent overall since 1979. I don’t think that anybody can say that under legalization, drugs are going to be less available given what we’ve seen with cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription drugs today being much more available than illegal drugs.

Source: International Centre for Science in Drug Policy

Is the issue the drugs themselves, or is it underlying socioeconomic factors like poverty and unemployment?

It’s both. Wider socio-economic problems are most definitely a huge part of the issue. The solutions will come from sectors like education reform, healthcare reform, and social support. Legalization isn’t going to be a magic bullet.

I’m reminded of the way the lottery was sold to many of these communities. The lottery was billed as an answer to the public education crisis in this country. Everywhere I go I ask people who have the lottery in their states, “Has it solved the public education crisis? How is that going?” And they laugh, because it’s another promise unfulfilled, and it’s exactly the same issue with marijuana today. Those communities are impacted the most, and they’ll continue to be impacted even more if we legalize a third addictive drug. In poor communities, I say we should tackle both drugs and the socioeconomic issues.

Source: Riga

What are three specific drug policy reforms that you would like to see in 2014?

One reform I would not like to see is legalization. That would be a step forward in many ways. I would also like to see reform on the federal level for marijuana sentencing to make sure that those users caught with small amounts are not being put in prison—and I don’t think that’s happening anyway—but we should look at where people are falling through the cracks.

I also think we should continue to look at the crack powder disparity (i.e., the harsher criminal penalties for possession of crack cocaine than an equal weight of crack powder). It contributes to racial tension and it doesn’t contribute to lower crime rates. People are being thrown into prison on the state level for small amounts of crack possession under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and I’m in favor of reforming those laws.

Lastly, we need to re-think the current trend towards privatization of prisons. We see perverse incentives [for prison companies] and, frankly, it’s not an equitable and just way to look at drug policy. This is about much more than incarceration versus legalization; it’s about reforms that can happen on the federal and state level.

This article is the second segment of a three-part interview with Dr. Kevin Sabet of Project SAM on drug policy in the United States. The third and final segment appeared on PolicyMic on Monday, November 25.

To hear the perspective of marijuana legalization advocate, read Gabe Grand’s interview with Dr. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, titled, “Why Marijuana Legalization is About So Much More than Smoking Weed.”