Fighting The Drug War On The Emotional Front

© Jesse Alan Gordon, 1995

Someday the "Drug War" will be fought on a new front. Current proponents of drug prohibition appeal to the "practical" benefits of keeping drugs illegal. As those practical benefits are demonstrated to be at best illusory or at worst counterproductive, the debate will move to less tangible arguments. Proponents of prohibition will eventually concede that there are no practical benefits to society, but that the moral benefits are still sufficient to justify the cost of maintaining the Drug War. Since they will have lost in their appeal to reason, they will have to appeal to emotion. This article will address how to counter the emotional appeals of the Drug War.

When will this "someday" come? I suspect it will begin during the next Presidential campaign or the one after that. If Clinton re-runs in 1996, he will try to avoid the drug issue whenever possible because his convoluted personal stance has hurt him so much. If Dan Quayle runs in 1996, he will certainly appeal to the moral benefits of drug prohibition, and Clinton will likely have to respond. If Al Gore runs in 2000 (or if Clinton does so poorly as to step down in 1996), he will likely appeal on a rational basis to end the Drug War (Gore has admitted using marijuana in a rational and non-defensive way). Someone like Quayle would address the Drug War on emotional grounds, and someone like Gore should be prepared to defend it by means other than a rational defense.

The basic rational defense of legalization is that the Drug War doesn't work:

These are demonstrable facts. They are hardly worthy of debate, except that prohibition continues. But the prohibitionist argument against demonstrable facts will crumble, as all arguments against facts do, and they will turn to other arguments.

The basic emotional defense of prohibition is generally that drug use degrades the moral fiber of society, and specifically that drug use destroys families. Prohibitionists will trot out people who have had family members killed by drug abuse or by drug-related violence, and they will attest to how drugs killed their loved ones and permanently damaged their families. This will be a heart-felt appeal on their part and hence will be emotionally effective. Let's discuss how to avoid making that politically effective, by thinking about how to counter their heart-felt appeals.

Heart-felt appeal: I want revenge for the death of my loved one!

Counter: Grieving people want extreme measures. We have to counter extremism by acknowledging victims' anger, pointing out the futility of anti-drug responses, and redirecting their anger from prohibitionism to other avenues.

But, yes, we've got to do something to avenge the deaths of loved ones. Getting rid of the cause of your loved one's death will prevent the deaths of others' loved ones. You can't bring them back, but you can avenge their death by doing what you can to prevent the same thing happening again.

We should work towards reducing drug use! Legalization will cause millions of new users!

If you want to make an effective appeal to reduce drug use on health grounds, moral grounds, family grounds, or any grounds, that appeal will be more effective if it is made in the context of legal drugs than in the context of a fear-based campaign. Look at tobacco use -- it's falling despite the legality of cigarettes. Tobacco companies no longer defend smoking as healthy -- they call it "freedom of choice." The campaign against tobacco use has successfully changed the attitudes of society towards smoking, and usage is decreasing as a result. The facts were documented and publicized in a credible manner, and people listened rationally.

The government cannot be a credible source of information as long as prohibition is in force, since the current absolutist attitude precludes anything but propaganda. If there were credible facts presented on drug use, most people would listen; credibility would occur only after prohibition ended. If you want to reduce drug use, persuade people rather than force people.

Regarding the millions of new users: Yes, lots of people would try legal pot. Some would even try an acid trip if they knew the stuff was safe and legal. And, yes, some people would get addicted. But we have to distinguish between millions of people experimenting a few times versus the few who will become addicts. Experimentation isn't bad for society (being open to new experiences is generally a positive trait) and those who are morally opposed will just say no.

Substance abuse is bad for society. Will there be millions of new substance abusers? No, not unless you believe that we're all weak-willed, that we're self-indulgent to self-destruction, and that we only avoid things which are illegal. If you believe all that, then you should promote an authoritarian police state as the answer to all of humanity's foibles. I have more faith in humanity than that -- the vast majority of people will behave responsibly and will not become abusers.

And what do you do with the new abusers, who will hurt the rest of us?

With the end of the Cold War, we had a choice about how to spend the "Peace Dividend." With the end of the Drug War, we can similarly spend the "Drug Peace Dividend" on addressing the damage to society caused by both new substance abusers and the existing substance abusers. The "Drug Peace Dividend" should be spent on social programs which address the societal and familial damage caused by substance abuse; social programs like:

Because of the moral implications of drug prohibition, drug clinics and rehabilitation centers are chronically under-funded. Addicts willing to undergo treatment typically must wait for weeks or months. Drug researchers are always in danger of political ostracization or criminal prosecution. Government information is viewed as propagandistic (à la "Reefer Madness," a hokey anti-pot film paid for by your taxes and laughed at by millions of tokers).

Personal drug use isn't the real problem -- the real problem is the societal damage from what drug abuse does to addicts and from what addicts to the rest of us. The real societal damage of substance abuse can be addressed much more effectively when we stop focusing on drug use and start focusing on substance abuse.

Crack users will still run amok on the streets and do violence to others!

Yes, they will do damage to society. And so do drunk drivers. And drunken husbands beat their wives. And crack-using husbands and drivers will do the same. And they should get the same punishment. Anyone doing violence or causing damage while using drugs should be prosecuted. I'd advocate harsher penalties for crimes committed while "under the influence" of any substance. And causing accidents, or causing any harm, while under the influence of substances should be treated as a separate criminal charge. The campaign against drunk driving is working -- no one advocates "Don't Drink," but we do sensibly admonish "Don't Drink and Drive." Recreational drug use should be subject to the same admonitions and legal punishments as recreational alcohol use.

The flip-side of the coin of freedom is responsibility. People who behave irresponsibly, and cause damage to others as a result, should be punished for it. Using drugs responsibly, like using alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine responsibly, might damage your health, but it doesn't damage society. If we stop bothering responsible users of drugs, we could focus on the irresponsible users.

How would you get drugs off the streets, and away from kids?

No one proposes an unregulated recreational drug market. Like liquor, cigarettes, and coffee, the drug market would be controlled and subject to government regulation and standards. The regulations would include:

Yeah, kids will still get drugs, like they get cigarettes and booze today, despite their illegality. We can deal with kids and drugs the same way we deal with kids and alcohol or kids and tobacco.

What do we do with drug dealers and other Bad Guys?

The big importers and big dealers are indeed Bad Guys, who don't care about the law, keep big guns, and use them on cops as well as innocent bystanders. They get away with all of that stuff because they have a lot of money. They got rich because of prohibition. Alcohol didn't spawn Al Capone -- alcohol prohibition did. And drugs didn't spawn Pablo Escobar -- drug prohibition did, because of the big money involved. And Capone and Escobar with their millions corrupted the police and the judges and the politicians who worked against them.

The presidents of Seagram's, R. J. Reynolds, and Nescafé act much more socially responsibly than the heads of comparably sized drug organizations. Lobbying by the tobacco industry is considered by many to be in bad taste or poor judgment. But it's of a different magnitude of corruption than Capone's Chicago, where politicians were "owned," or Escobar's Colombia, where judges are assassinated on the bench.

What do we do with the Bad Guys who are already out there? Well, Al Capone's cohorts faded away with the repeal of alcohol Prohibition. Pablo Escobar's cohorts will fade away too. Either they'll become legitimate drug importers, or they'll go on to other criminally prohibited activities. The real problem is that drug prohibition has made some of them so wealthy that they will be hard to stop when they move to other illegal fields. We'll have to deal with that legacy of the Drug War whether we end prohibition or not. But the source of their wealth is drug prohibition -- and we can take that away from them.

But cocaine is dangerous!

So are knives, guns, turpentine, razor blades, and plastic bags. Be careful with cocaine like you would with turpentine. It'd be a lot safer if there were a seal of safety inspection on it, and users knew its strength. Keep it away from kids, like you do with razor blades.

Families of people who have committed suicide by hanging themselves don't advocate the prohibition of rope nor the banning of books describing how to tie a noose. We should sympathize with the families of suicide victims, whether by rope or by cocaine. We feel bad about the suicide, but banning the instrument of suicide is not an issue.

We do have a responsibility to make reasonably sure that people who don't mean to kill themselves don't do so accidentally. We should address the safety of recreational drugs by requiring rigorous safety inspections, clear warnings about its use (à la "Smoking causes cancer" on cigarette packages) and strict labeling standards.


We've won the battle for the mind -- anyone who looks rationally at the facts can no longer support drug prohibition. Now we have to win the battle for the heart. This is a harder issue, because the majority of Americans believe in their hearts that drugs are evil. As long as there's an emotional gut reaction to drug legalization, people won't look at the facts and won't let rationality prevail. We must address the moral questions, the gut feelings, and the emotions of people and families affected by drug use. When we can answer their charges, we'll win the battle for the heart.

We'll never win over the "Just Say No" crowd, who base their policy on morality. But most Americans care primarily about the practical implications of drug abuse, like how it has hurt their family or how it hurts society. Addressing the practical cares of most Americans is the way to answer emotional arguments. Legalization is not the moral solution -- but it is the solution to the real problems of drugs in America.

All material copyright 1995 Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 354-2805

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