Progressives Should Just Say No to Legalizing Drugs

There's a good reason drugs are illegal: They're dangerous.

Medical marijuana has arrived in the nation's capital.

Why would we wish drug's destructive effects on more Americans?

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Legalizing drugs has long been a rallying cry on the left, and not without good reason. Progressives remain deeply concerned about the large numbers of low-income males – especially African-American males – who lose their prime years to prison for what seems like the harmless crime of possessing drugs. Legalizing drugs, therefore, seems a sensible way to decriminalize the activities of low-income young African-American men who might feel that the drug economy is the only economy available. Proponents also argue that legalizing drugs would reduce drug-related violence and protect drug users from tainted drugs (on the assumption that the government would sell cleaner, purer drugs).

With Colorado and Washington state leading the momentum toward legalizing marijuana (including news this week of Colorado’s expected large influx of business tax dollars from marijuana sellers), and given the growing number of municipalities embracing medical marijuana (surely, a humane response to chemotherapy patients and others in tremendous pain) the movement to legalize drugs for recreational use is gaining significant steam. In recent days, we’ve even seen calls for legalization from former Rep. Barney Frank and the pages of the Washington Post.

Nevertheless, legalizing drugs is not the answer – even for the left. Here’s why: Drugs kill. They turn talented, intelligent people into impulsive animals. They destroy marriages. They deprive children of emotionally healthy parents. There’s a good reason drugs are illegal: They’re dangerous. Products that kill do not belong on drugstore shelves.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on pot legalization.]

Does the name Lenny Bias ring a bell? Boston sports fans will never forget his name. Professional basketball’s number two draft pick in 1986, and the star son of the Maryland Terrapins, Bias was quickly scooped up by the Boston Celtics, bringing hope and excitement to Celtics fans. Bias was thrilled. So thrilled he celebrated that very night by trying cocaine for the first time ever. And that cocaine killed him.

More recently, America suffered the loss of a tremendously gifted actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose. Heroin kills. It’s as simple as that. Medical experts say that heroin changes the brain’s chemistry, making addicts out of people who were curious to try it one time.

Why would we wish addiction, misery and death on more Americans by making it legal and easier to access? Moreover, why would we eliminate the deterrent effect that criminality now imposes on the general public? If drugs were as legal as alcohol, a lot more people would try them. Do we really want to see legions of Americans die because they’re curious to try a new high?

Progressives should oppose drug legalization because the people most likely to be killed, the families most likely to be torn apart, the futures most likely to be destroyed are the very people progressives work hardest to help – the downtrodden, with lower incomes (who, according to government data, are significantly more likely to use drugs). Progressives believe the American dream should be available to everyone, regardless of skin color or nationality. We believe opportunity should not be curtailed because a child has the bad luck to be born on the wrong side of the tracks. But addiction can rob a struggling family of its shot at the American dream faster than a sudden-onset recession; the death and destruction that drugs bring can destroy a kid's future more powerfully than the lack of strong schools.

Even the least damaging drugs – like marijuana – still kill brain cells and even shrink parts of the brain with prolonged use. Proponents argue that marijuana is no worse than tobacco, which is available on drugstore shelves (although no longer on the shelves at CVS, thanks to CVS’ bold decision to put public health above profit and to focus more seriously on its health care delivery). While tobacco is addictive and causes many health problems (draining public health resources), cigarettes don’t shrink parts of the brain. Why would we want a generation of teenagers to have smaller brains with fewer brain cells from smoking marijuana? 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

America’s next generation must be smarter than ever to compete in the global economy against the kids from Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo, who consistently outscore Americans on international academic tests. How do we expect American kids born in poor neighborhoods to compete on the global stage if they’re stoned? 

Certainly, drugs can destroy families of any wealth level, and addiction does not discriminate, but the people most vulnerable to drugs’ power tend to be those who are the most hopeless, and hopelessness comes in large doses in lower-income communities. While depression can hit any income level, there are a lot more reasons to be depressed if you live in bleak poverty. 

Admittedly, opposing legalization will not solve the problem of huge numbers of African-American men who lose their adulthood to prison for drug possession. But legalization isn’t the most direct answer for that problem anyway. Prison terms and mandatory minimums can be addressed by statutory changes. (For example, the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act ended the racially unfair sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.) Without losing the deterrent effect of criminality, there’s no reason laws could not require more drug treatment and assistance rebuilding lives and less traditional jail time for illegal drug use. What progressives should focus on is improving the opportunities of Americans born into the bleakest neighborhoods – not advocating for legalization of drugs, which are a guaranteed opportunity-killer.