Asa Hutchinson, Administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration and Republican New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the highest-ranking elected official who has spoken out against the war on drugs, put on a good show at a recent debate sponsored by the Yale Law School Chapter of the Federalist Society.
Johnson’s argument centered on the high costs of enforcing existing drug laws, citing his favorite statistic that 50% of spending on law enforcement, prisons and courts goes to fighting the war on drugs. Johnson repeated many times that legalization would reduce, “death, disease and crime.”
Hutchinson chose not to address allocation of resources and instead concentrated on the harm to society and individual health caused by drug use and abuse. Hutchinson also made a sincere attempt to meet legalization advocates on their own terms, responding to concerns about infringements of individual liberty necessitated by the drug war. Though his answers were unsatisfying and often failed to address the core question, his willingness to engage in public discussion at all with the likes of Johnson is laudable in the extreme.
Johnson’s point that the drug war is resource intensive is important, but insufficient to condemn it altogether. Johnson has made the fact that he condemns drug use as a personal choice central to his legalization campaign, but fails to acknowledge that legalization may actually lead to some increased use, especially of softer drugs like marijuana. Hutchinson was unwilling to acknowledge the basic point that prohibition of drug use limits individual freedom. Each speaker cited various statistics about efficacy and expenditure to support his points and both encouraged members of the audience to go home and independently verify their statistics. But neither was quite willing to concede all of the potential consequences of his plan.
The most striking disagreement over numbers was not characterized by quarrelling over sources, cause and effect, or regression analyses, however. Late in the debate, presumably in an effort to fend off Johnson’s claim that the government was imprisoning millions of Americans for no good reason, Hutchinson quoted some informative statistics: “There are 1.6 million people arrested every year in the United States. 800,000 of those arrests are for marijuana. But in fact there are only 7,000 inmates in either state or federal prison whose most serious conviction was a marijuana possession charge. Only seven thousand.” Though most legalization advocates are well aware that the oft-quoted figure of 1.6 million includes those who have committed other, more serious crimes, it is worthwhile to be reminded of the proportions.
But then he goes on, “Only seven thousand are in prison for simple possession of marijuana where that is the most serious charge. And so I don’t think that you can make the case that in the United States we’re incarcerating marijuana users because that is not the fact.” When the speaker claims that we are not incarcerating marijuana users while simultaneously citing the facts that 1) there are 800,000 arrests made on marijuana charges per year and 2) 7,000 in jail for marijuana possession alone, his command of the laws of logic seems questionable at best.
Far from a mere comical slip of the tongue, Hutchinson’s statement exposes the mindset of so many who have participated in and continue to support the war on drugs. In an effort to create a society in which no one abuses drugs (a society both Hutchinson and Johnson agree would be preferable) important theoretical and practical concerns are tossed aside. 7,000 people’s ruined lives become statistically negligible in an attempt to eradicate a drug that is less harmful to individuals and society than tobacco.
In the shadows of Johnson and Hutchinson’s debate lurked a question
that has been around much longer than the war on drugs, the question of
the malleability of the law. Hutchinson took the stance that law
has an effect on morals insofar as it tells people how to act. Johnson
responded by reversing the concept, point out that morals must also inform
the law, not simply be dumbly shaped by it. When people are disrespectful
of the law we have two choices: 1) we can dedicate more time and resources
to the enforcement of the law, or 2) we can change the law to reflect the
convictions of the citizens about what is right.
Hutchinson closed by saying, “I think the right lesson to be learned for our young people is that drugs are harmful, and because they are harmful, they are illegal.” He was responding in part to a throw-away remark by Johnson who, at the beginning of his rebuttal, spit out, “Law is the master teacher… I guess that [means] women with the right to vote should have never been allowed to vote, I guess that segregation should still exist in this country, that slavery should still exist in this country. We have the ability to change laws.”
The debate between Johnson and Hutchinson was informative for a few listeners, comical for others, impressive for the big names featured together on the stage, but one can be fairly certain neither of the participants came away from the stage with his stance on the issue altered in the slightest. Part of the explanation for their stasis is each man’s role in public life. The head of the DEA cannot wake up one day and decide to give legalization a try, and Johnson has already tied his career and his fortunes to legalization.
But regardless of the reasons they maintain their respective positions, their intractable stances first arose from differing answers to fundamental questions on the role of the state and the nature of laws. Each man has become a stand-in for a broad school of thought on a variety of issues. They serves as symbols and speak in short hand, but their relative fame and public roles make them the right men to invite to a debate like the Federalist Society event. Johnson and Hutchinson might not be expected to be deep thinkers or polished speakers, but those who are must remain concerned with, and connected to, the implications of these questions.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a former Editor of the YFP
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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