Student Union Speakers Debate the Merits of Drug Policy

“Drug Wars,” the latest in a series of Pomona Student Union events, featured a spirited debate on the virtues and vices of drug prohibition and potential legalization.

The debate, which took place Sep. 23 at 7 p.m. in front of a packed crowd in Edmunds Ballroom, pitted former Bush administration Spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy Tom Riley against the Cato Institute’s Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Ted Galen Carpenter.

“Past and current drug enforcement policies, based on the premise that drugs must remain illegal, have been ineffective and have caused dangerous unintended consequences,” said Carpenter. “Legalization is the only way to prevent those problems.”

Carpenter, who believes all drugs from marijuana to methamphetamines should be fully legalized, said the United States policy of prohibition against drugs has been “not just a policy failure, but a policy catastrophe.”

Riley argued in favor of drug prohibition. He believes the laws in place ultimately have created a safer society.

The scope of the discussion encompassed not only the domestic implications of the “War on Drugs,” but also its impact on the global community. Both speakers vehemently defended their positions, making few concessions throughout the course of the night.

The debate began with five-minute opening statements from each participant.

Carpenter used this time to trace the course of United States anti-drug policy, beginning with President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” in 1969. He said these policies have generally focused on a supply component—an effort to reduce the flow of illegal drugs coming into the U.S.—and a demand component—an effort to reduce demand for illegal drugs within the U.S.

The supply component includes internationally focused policies such as interdiction of supplies, crop eradication, and economic development programs for countries that serve as drug sources.

Carpenter said that despite these policies, the quantity of drugs flowing into the U.S. has changed little over the decades.

The demand component consists of domestic policies including increased law enforcement, drug education, and drug treatment programs.

“When you look at the record of both the international supply side of the campaign and the domestic demand reduction efforts, it is difficult or impossible to escape the conclusion that this policy has not worked well at all,” Carpenter said.

Although Riley acknowledged that Carpenter’s argument was “principled,” he countered by explaining how drug policy has evolved over the past 40 years, noting, among other changes, the recognition of addiction as a legitimate disease.

“The idea of saying there’s a straight line [in terms of policy] doesn’t represent the reality of what’s happened,” Riley said.

During the subsequent rebuttal rounds, the focus shifted to the unintended consequences of prohibitionist policy, and then to the potential effects of legalization.

Pointing to successful decriminalization policies in Portugal, Carpenter said the potential economic and safety gains would be worth the modest increases in use that would follow legalization.

“Until we legalize these substances we do not take the black market profits out of the trade,” Carpenter said. “As long as that black market exists, we are going to deal with the problems of violence and corruption.”

Riley, however, said the increases in use would reveal themselves to a greater extent once cultural views have changed, and these increases are not worth the benefits of legalization.

“I don’t think that the costs of prohibition are the main characteristic of the drug problem in America,” Riley said. “The main problem in America with drugs is use and addiction. Ending prohibition is not going to reduce drug use.”

Conspicuously absent from the debate was a direct discussion of potential marijuana legalization. In interviews afterwards, the two experts voiced decidedly different views on that as well.

Carpenter said, “Full scale legalization of marijuana is at least a 50-50 chance within the next decade.”

Riley, on the other hand, said the chance of such legalization is “actually about zero.”

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