Drug Decriminalization

via Uncommon Knowledge
Thursday, May 18, 2017
US attorney general Edwin Meese III and former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara

Released May 18, 1996

In the 1996 first ever episode of Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson discusses the origins of Uncommon Knowledge before invited guests former US attorney general Edwin Meese III and former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara. They have a spirited debate about the war on drugs and the best way to handle the drug problem in the United States.  According to Peter Robinson, “Ed Meese wants to win the war on drugs; Joe McNamara wants to end it.” Twenty-one years later, we look back  as Meese and McNamara debate the merits of marijuana legalization and make predictions about where the United States would be in ten  years (2006). Although their predictions were not entirely accurate, their insights into the legalization debate and the war on drugs remain helpful today. They answer questions about how they believe that  legalizing marijuana will increase crime and addiction rates, how to beef up educational and prevention programs, and the effect of middle-class drug use in the United States.

Peter Robinson: Hello. I'm Peter Robinson, a fellow here at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University. I'm also the host of Uncommon Knowledge. Why, you might ask, is a think tank involved in putting on a television program? For that matter, you might ask, "What is a think tank?" A think tank, as the name implies, is a place where people are paid to think. In the case of the Hoover Institution, to think about public policy. The people who work here and those who visit us are experts, specialists in public policy, foreign and domestic. They're Democrats, Republicans, Independents, but all share an abiding interest in the ideas that shape the way our country is governed and the way we Americans live our lives. Now, about this TV show; when I arrived a few years ago from Washington, D.C., I could see that the conversations that take place at the Hoover Institution, conversations at lunch and dinner, over afternoon coffee, even in the stairwells and hallways, are different from the ones we're all used to seeing on so many public affairs TV shows. These conversations put ideas first, politics second. We thought it would be a good idea to let you in on some of these conversations. About the program's title; when we started work on this series, we called it Reliable Sources. We don't call it that anymore. It's not that Reliable Sources was a bad name, just the reverse. It was such a good name that another TV show was already using it. Now we call our program Uncommon Knowledge. We hope you find it uncommonly entertaining and uncommonly informative. Today's program; the war on drugs. There are two guests. Edwin Meese served as Attorney General of the United States under President Reagan. Joseph McNamara spent 35 years as a cop, starting on the beat in New York City and ending as San Jose Chief of Police. Ed Meese wants to win the war on drugs. Joe McNamara wants to end it. Our conversation took place at a local restaurant called MacArthur Park. When a conversation gets heated, it helps to have a cup of coffee.

Edwin Meese: Well, I don't like to use the word “war” on drugs because I think it's a misleading phrase. It makes it sound that it's something that can be won in a relatively short period of time and that you can have a decisive victory. Also the term war connotes an all-out effort by society, as we had wars in World War II or something like that. I think of it as a long-term thing and the crusade against drugs really has to be re-inaugurated with each generation of kids that come along. As far as the statistics we had from 1980 to 1990, say between '80 and '92 in about a 10 to 12 year period, we actually had a 50% reduction in drug use in the United States by every indicator that has been used, every study.

Peter Robinson: So, Joe McNamara, doesn't that suggest the war or crusade can be won?

Joseph McNamara: Well, let me say no one in local law enforcement agrees with the statement that Ed just made about a decrease in drug use. Many people who study these empirical statements very closely, disagree with that. We did have a decrease in some polls of middle class drug use during those years which we attribute more to public education than to anything that the criminal justice system was doing. However, I want to get back to a point that I think is very important. When Ed says that he is against the war on drugs, yet a couple of sentences later he mentioned that we must renew the crusade against drugs. Now, a crusade is a holy war. One of the reasons we have trouble examining this policy is that the people who lobbied for it around the turn of the century for the Harrison Act and for criminalizing drugs, were religious groups. The police were silent on drugs. It did not come from complaints of the social conditions of drug use or anything like that. The Protestant Missionary Societies in China, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League and other religious groups, it's quite clear from the congressional record, they got their version of sin put into the penal code which sticks with us so many years later that we talk about drug users as immoral. We stereotype them as demons and dehumanize them as criminals when in fact, we should be looking at this the way we look at any other social problem. It is a problem and Ed and I would certainly be in agreement that we should discourage experimentation with a lot of dangerous drugs. The fact is by making the mistake of viewing this as a holy war, as a crusade, we've had one president after the other falsely promise the American public that they were going to win this “War on Drugs”. There are many, many penalties that come from characterizing it as a war. American police officers are peace officers. There is no enemy for them to destroy. As soon as they start thinking that any segment of the population is an enemy, we're going to get the kind of police behavior we saw in the Rodney King tapes. We're going to get the kind of behavior that we see every month where police officers have been convicted of perjury and of falsifying evidence, all because the politicians are telling them, "Look, we've got to do something about this evil, this terrible problem."

Peter Robinson: The sums of money involved in the drug trade are gigantic. Haven't we seen a corruption of some police officials, a brutalization of the relationship between cops and the public? Isn't that a price we've had to pay?

Edwin Meese: Well, certainly there's a lot of money involved but the question is, I view it as a problem. The cost to society of drugs are tremendous in terms of accidents, loss of productivity and all the rest. Now, Joe says that he disagrees with the statistics. Every study, including most law enforcement would agree, that there was a reduction in drug use during the 1980's. In the early 1980's for the first time we had a comprehensive national strategy against drugs. One of the big factors in that, was not just law enforcement because we always had law enforcement, was bringing in the education, bringing in the prevention aspects of it, bringing in a greater treatment and greater rehabilitation and also greater research. This was part of President Reagan's comprehensive strategy. I don't know about what presidents you're talking about, but President Reagan never promised that we would end drug use but what he did say we would like to make substantial inroads and particularly, we would like to have an alternative to just law enforcement and that was where the whole prevention and education attitude came in. We had national leadership during that period of time. Joe, no matter what you say, it's hard to find any expert in the field who doesn't agree there was a considerable reduction in drug use by mainstream Americans during that period of time.

Joseph McNamara: Ed is simply incorrect on this figure. We, around the turn of the century before the Harrison Act, had a real problem with addiction in American. It's not new. These were middle-class housewives who were addicted to opiates. They would pay a dollar a bottle for nerve medicine. No one got excited. These people weren't robbing banks and they weren't viewed as criminal underclass. That was cured in 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act began labeling and began controlling the product and alerted the medical profession. It was an educational civil law.

Peter Robinson: Those of the years when Coca-Cola had cocaine.

Joseph McNamara: Where we made the mistake with the Harrison Act was in criminalizing it. Before the Harrison Act we didn't have the violence, we didn't have the billion dollar black market. We didn't have this enormous corruption of law enforcement, of governments throughout the world and we didn't have anything like the number of drug addicts that we have now since the government has declared war.

Edwin Meese: Hold on now, Joe, you don't honestly believe that because something was made illegal that increased the number of people using?

Joseph McNamara: It absolutely did.

Edwin Meese: Oh, you're absolutely wrong.

Joseph McNamara: It increased the profit that without the illegality we wouldn't have this enormous driving force. Let me just say one thing. You asked me a question and I'd like to answer it. The reason the government cannot stop the drug trade is that about five hundred dollars' worth of cocaine or heroin in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru or source company, will bring one hundred thousand dollars on the streets of an American city. Because it's illegal. All the cops and armies and prisons in the world will not stop something with that market incentive. We didn't have that driving market for us before the Harrison Act. We now have it.

Edwin Meese: Joe, you've got to admit that the amount of drug use in this country was much less before the '60's and that while there was obviously drug use, it was not as prevalent. Most people who were working did not use drugs. Most people who were in high schools did not use drugs. This came about in from the 60's on. Now, that doesn't mean there wasn't drug abuse before that. There certainly was but it was not nearly as prevalent as it became in the '60's.

Joseph McNamara: There's no doubt the '60's was the birth of a drug culture. Overwhelmingly the people who used drugs in the '60's did not go out and become heroin addicts or bank robbers or anything. The majority of cops I hired as police chief had experimented with marijuana or other drugs. Now, thank God they didn't get arrested because we would have lost some good cops. That's one of the big costs of criminalizing this kind of behavior. President Clinton has used drugs. Speaker Gingrich has used drugs. An awful lot of people have used drugs. Should we lock these people up and give them a criminal record. What is the cost of that?

Peter Robinson: Let's talk for a second about this profit market point that Joe made ...

Peter Robinson: Locking people up? Let's try to figure out what happens if drugs are made legal.

Peter Robinson: In order to come up with a thousand bucks in cash, the addict has to steal five thousand dollars' worth of jewels, cars, other loot, whatever, every week to support his habit. You legalize drugs and instead of needing to come up with a thousand dollars a week to support his habit, this guy has to come up with twenty dollars a week and he can get that money out of the coin slots in pay phones.

Edwin Meese: Well, Peter, that brings a whole new element into it and that is, how do you legalize drugs. Joe, are you in favor in legalizing drugs?

Joseph McNamara: I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana immediately.

Edwin Meese: Really?

Joseph McNamara: I don't say what I'm for. I want to tell you very, very bluntly what I'm for and then I want to ask if you know what you're for because I would say, looking at a great deal of medical evidence, there's nothing conclusive about the danger of marijuana. I don't advocate people using any of this stuff. However, it's almost certain that most medical people would say that marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or than smoking tobacco.

Edwin Meese: No, no.

Joseph McNamara: We don't dare criminalize those drugs because we recognize there's another value called freedom.

Peter Robinson: Let's stop on marijuana. You're in favor of legalizing marijuana today.

Joseph McNamara: The other thing I would say is let's stop arresting people whose only crime is the use of these drugs. We're talking about ...

Peter Robinson: The users.

Joseph McNamara: The users, right. We're talking about living in a free society where we respect our citizens to be mature enough to vote and elect the government and to do all other things. We shouldn't start putting people in jail because they're not living the life that we think they should because we could equally say if they eat too much cholesterol we'll put them in jail. If they smoke too much nicotine we'll put them in jail or if they don't exercise properly we'll put them in jail. They're not living this healthy American life that we have a vision of.

Peter Robinson: You've got two proposals immediately, legalize marijuana today and legalize the use of drugs today. Ed?

Edwin Meese: You're in favor of legalizing the use of drugs, saying decriminalize.

Joseph McNamara: I'm saying decriminalize.

Peter Robinson: Decriminalize.

Joseph McNamara: Educate people, "Look this is bad for your health. Don't ..."

Peter Robinson: Selling cocaine is still going to be illegal but using it ...

Joseph McNamara: Right.

Peter Robinson: ... will be legal. Okay, Ed?

Edwin Meese: Well, this is very interesting to have Joe take this position because he's at odds with all the rest of the police chiefs in the country.

Joseph McNamara: That's not true.

Edwin Meese: Yes it is, Joe. A survey was just taken of police chiefs ...

Joseph McNamara: I'm familiar with it.

Edwin Meese: ... by Police Foundation and that survey and 90% of the police chiefs in the country and 94% of the large city police chiefs said that to decriminalize drugs would be a step in the wrong direction. The reason is they know that drugs are dangerous, they know that drugs are not a good thing in our society. Drugs have never been accepted as a legitimate part of society. As a matter of fact, those places that have decriminalized ... We've had de facto decriminalization of marijuana during much of the '60's and early '70's. We had actual decriminalization of marijuana in some states and in general ...

Peter Robinson: Alaska for instance.

Edwin Meese: Alaska, and they have gone the other way on the thing.

Peter Robinson: They've re-criminalized it.

Edwin Meese: And they've re-criminalized it. What you have found is that these are really dangerous substances. The idea that there's no medical danger to marijuana is simply not true. A marijuana cigarette is four times more toxic than is an ordinary Philip Morris or Pall Mall or anything like that.

Peter Robinson: Or compared to booze, alcohol.

Edwin Meese: Also, in terms of alcohol, marijuana is also more dangerous than alcohol. One of the things about narcotics, about drugs, is that you have ... Whereas with alcohol approximately 10% of the people who use alcohol become alcoholics, in other words, become addicted to it. Whereas with drugs, with the narcotics and drugs that are now illicit, the addiction rate is somewhere between 40 to 60% depending on the drug.

Joseph McNamara: We have some factual disagreements here but I wanted to say one thing about the study that Ed cites, the police chiefs are overwhelming opposed to going on as we are now in the drug war and are calling for a much greater emphasis on education and prevention.

Edwin Meese: As I am, as I am, and I've always emphasized that.

Joseph McNamara: Yet the president of the United States and the Congress of the United States refuses to even study this issue. The reason they do is it's so attractive for a politician to say that they're tough on drugs or crime and they say we will not even study the subject even though law enforcement is saying you must study it. You must find alternatives because what we're doing is not working. Now, this is the latest ...

Peter Robinson: What about education and prevention? Ed thinks it worked during the Reagan years anyway.

Peter Robinson: During the Reagan years you were there, you did a couple of things. You increased the war-like aspect of the crusade, if that's what you want to call, with funding to cops and so forth but there was also an educational effort.

Edwin Meese: No, no. It was the education.

Peter Robinson: You think that was more to ...

Edwin Meese: Oh, sure. Sure. Taking the market away. We always said that taking the market away was the most important thing you could do as far as dealing with the drug problem. That was one of the major emphasis that we had in the 1980's that hadn't been there before.

Peter Robinson: Here we have an area of total agreement. You're both in favor of beefed up educational ...

Edwin Meese: And prevention.

Peter Robinson: ... and prevention programs. Is that right?

Joseph McNamara: The difficulty with educational programs is that the government has no credibility because, in fact, they're saying a lot of crazy things about marijuana, about the other drugs and so on. Most of the experts that I've read say that if there was a decrease, and local police chiefs flatly denied there was any decrease at all. In fact, Lee Brown who became the drug czar as New York police commissioner said, "These people from Washington say there's a decrease in drug use but no one on local law enforcement believes that." Later when he became drug czar he used to say, "Well, these people in local law enforcement don't know what they're talking about", as Ed is basically saying now. The point is when Len Bias died of a cocaine reaction and a number of other people died, that had an impact on middle class drug use. There is no doubt there that the reports indicated less taking of cocaine. You have to remember that these were self-administered reports. Part of the thing is the decrease, the decrease ... It's no longer cool to use coke so people might have still been using it but didn't answer truthfully on. This is an empirical research difficulty and question is.

Peter Robinson:  Let's look at that research though.

Joseph McNamara: The arrest levels when the government started testing and don't forget, this too is a questionable area of methodology. People arrested who volunteer to get drug tests. Those levels have been kind of steadily increasing despite what the government does.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask if there is a 10-year study ...

Speaker 4: All right. That's just about enough on statistics.

Peter Robinson: Marijuana is made legal as of noon tomorrow. Drug use is made legal as of noon tomorrow. What happens to crime?

Edwin Meese: Crime goes up.

Joseph McNamara: No, crime would decrease enormously because ...

Edwin Meese: No.

Peter Robinson: First McNamara. McNamara's program. You get to answer first.

Joseph McNamara: In 1994 law enforcement made one million three hundred thousand arrests for drug crimes in the United States. One million of those crimes were for possession. Three hundred thousands were for sales. Now, as Ed indicated, the sellers aren't people from the Cali Cartel or the big shots. They're slobs. I want to tell one short story.

Peter Robinson: Sure.

Joseph McNamara: When I was a cop in Harlem one day, my partner and I arrested a drug addict and he said, "Officer, let me go. I'll give you a pusher." He talked to one man after the other and the third conversation, went into the hallway, we arrested the pusher and so on. It's a very significant illustration. In the first place, it was humiliating. Here we were in uniform in a marked police car and a few feet away people were dealing in drugs. We would not have known what was happening if we hadn't made this agreement. Then the other point you have to remember about these drug crimes is that they're consensual. Millions of crimes like that occur every day that the police have no way of knowing about because the two parties are consensual and they do it in secret. Now, other crimes that we call wrong in themselves, as Ed would say, "Mala in se", the legal term, robbery, rape and so on. There there's a victim who comes forward to the police and says, "Look, arrest this person. They've done something wrong to me." With drug crimes you don't have that and so you have this tremendously hidden drug market from the police. For the police to penetrate a whole series of unethical things occur. For example, I think it was unethical in a way in what we did, we let someone go for a crime because they enticed someone else ...

Joseph McNamara: ... to commit a more serious crime, right. And that goes on everyday in the drug world.

Peter Robinson: Crime goes down because we stop calling all kind of things crimes.

Joseph McNamara: Of course, of course. Maybe a million arrests a year.

Edwin Meese: What has never been expressed to me, and I assume Joe would not advocate that kids under the age of 18 would be allowed to freely buy drugs anymore than they are alcohol today. One of the things ...

Peter Robinson: Let's get his answer on that.

Edwin Meese: Is that right?

Joseph McNamara: Of course not.

Edwin Meese: What you are doing is you are creating a specific area where the people, the gangs and others that are involved in the sale of drugs are now going to concentrate on the black market that is still a black market, and that is the kids. Right now most people are not turned on to drugs by the pusher who lurks around school yards. Most people are turned on to drugs by so-called friends of theirs who are using. What you would now have is these same people are going to go after this youth group, the under-18 group. We have enough problems with alcohol as far as the people under 18. Now we're going to have people under 18 which will be the sole target of the black marketeers. Beyond that we haven't really learned how you're going to sell these drugs. Are you going to have drug stores, so to speak, in which drugs are freely sold? Is the government going to run these things? Are they going to be sold by entrepreneurs? How is this whole system going to go because you have a very different substance than alcohol. You have something that is different in kind. Alcohol can be used responsibly. I can take a drink, even Joe can take a drink and handle it responsibly.

Joseph McNamara: Me?

Edwin Meese: You are Irish. You can take a drink and handle it responsibly without getting drunk. The only purpose of using illicit drugs is to get stoned.

Joseph McNamara: So what?

Peter Robinson: Hang on a second.

Joseph McNamara: Why does that offend if that person doesn't do anything else? Because see, because you go back to the religious motivation ...

Edwin Meese: No, no. It's not religious.

Joseph McNamara: It's something evil about—

Edwin Meese: It's a public health motivation. It's a public health motivation. This health costs increase, the crack babies increase. The accidents increase on the job, the productivity is lost on the job. There's an economic and health and social aspect to this which the people who want to legalize, like Joe, just simply ignore.

Peter Robinson: I think in the minds of the public if you're talking about ...

Peter Robinson: Economic, legal and social aspects, okay, but if we legalize drugs, what happens to the addicts?

Peter Robinson: I think in the minds of the public, if you're talking about legalizing drugs even a step or two, as you would advocate, there are at least two big questions. One is what happens to crime? You say it goes down, Ed says it goes up. Here's the next question. What happens to the number of addicts? It's legalized so you don't get the attraction of forbidden fruits. On the other hand, as we all agree, the very point of legalization, one of the points, is to drop the price. If something's less expensive, people buy more of it, right, or not? Don't we get more addicts?

Joseph McNamara: No, because you wouldn't have this market to try and sell it. If you control the way in which these drugs are distributed and you take away the profit you're not going to necessarily get more. Many of the people in the '60's got into marijuana because it was illegal. This is what motivated them and we have to face the fact ...

Peter Robinson: It's a protest.

Joseph McNamara: We don't really know. A coming of age for a lot of people was to do things that are naughty. Let me just finish ...

Edwin Meese: Far more people didn't get in because it was illegal. An awful lot of kids they said that the reason that they didn't use where their buddies were ...

Joseph McNamara: That these people who did get into it are today's bankers, lawyers, cops, politics and so on. The ones that were unlucky enough to get caught under this harsh, and the penalties were damn harsh for it, those people, sure, they became part of the criminal underclass that he's talking about. One thing we know, once people start identifying themselves as criminals, they're going to go into a life of crime. That's what we have to balance, the harm we do by giving someone a criminal record for smoking pot let's say, compared to the harm that might occur to society because more people smoke pot.

Peter Robinson: The polls show that 80% of the public is opposed to legalization of drugs. How do you handle that?

Joseph McNamara: 90% of the public in a Gallop poll, this is a government publication that tells me this, is against locking up drug users as part of the solution, 90% in Gallop poll of 1990.

Peter Robinson: What's wrong with making a values judgment?

Joseph McNamara: John Stuart Mill in his famous essay on liberty, which was discussing prohibition, said that the government has no right to interfere with a citizen's behavior if that behavior is harming no one else. Do we want to live in a country, do you want your kids to grow up in a country where the cops are going to stop them on the corner, shake down the vehicle, lie about it in court where the mandatory sentences are putting people in jail 5, 10, 25 years to life, where the government is seizing cars and businesses and cars, all on that basis. It comes down to whether or not we accept the fact that our citizens are mature except for children. We'll let them make a reasonable decision of what's harmful for their health. We had a reduction in alcohol consumption, smoking and consumption of high-cholesterol foods, not because we had a government criminal law and war against these substances, but because we educated the public, this stuff is bad for your health.

Peter Robinson: So, Ed Meese, what's wrong with that view?

Edwin Meese: The reason why 80% of the public does not believe in the legalization of drugs is because it is a public health problem. There are all kinds of health consequences which the whole society has to bear, including crack babies and things like that. It is a social problem because there is more crime that comes out of it and more degradation of society because of it. It is an economic problem. The gains in productivity and a decrease in accidents. In those businesses that adopted a drug-free work place during the 1980's was tremendous as far as a plus in terms of the economic factor.

Peter Robinson: The year is 2006, 10 years from today. In how many stares has the McNamara program been enacted? In how many states is marijuana legal? You may choose from 0 to 50, Joe.

Joseph McNamara: Well, I hope in 50. The present policies have not eliminated crack babies, violence, drug use, nor will they. They cannot. Sooner or later this country has to wake up and realize that we created this nightmare. If we keep doing what we're doing, drug use won't be any better 10 years, 20 years from now, but the violence will be worse.

Peter Robinson: Ed Meese, 10 years from now, how far will the legalization movement have gone now?

Edwin Meese: 10 years from now there will be no states that will make marijuana legal and if we have another comprehensive strategy which includes prevention and education, we will have less drug use then than we have now.

Peter Robinson: Ed Meese, Joe McNamara, thank you very much.