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Between Politics and Reason

  The Drug Legalization Debate

    Erich Goode — State University of New York, Stony Brook

        Contemporary Social Issues Series, St. Martin's Press, New York


Between Politics and Reason
1997 by St. Martin's Press
appears in The Schaffer Library
at the request of the author.
ISBN 0-312-13297-2
Please Use This Link
to order from Amazon.com

      About the Author

1.   Introduction
        Unanticipated Consequences
        Ideology and Morality
        Drug Laws: An Introduction
        Definitions: What Is a Drug?

2.   Drug Use in America: An Overview
        Studying Drug Use
        Prescription Drugs
        Continuance Rates
        Illegal Drugs

3.   Drug Abuse: Definitions, Indicators, and Causes
        The Legalistic Definition of Drug Abuse
        A Harm-Based Definition of Drug Abuse
        Is Dependence Always Abuse?
        Conclusions on Abuse
        Why Drug Abuse?

4.   Prohibition: The Punitive Model
        Two Punitive Arguments
        Drug Control: The Current System
        Summary of the Current System
        Are We Becoming Increasingly Punitive on Drug Control?

5.   Strange Bedfellows: Ideology, Politics, and the Drug Legalization Debate
        Cultural Conservatives
        Free-Market Libertarians
        Radical Constructionists
        Progressive Legalizers
        Progressive Prohibitionists

6.   Legalization and Decriminalization: An Overview
        Generalism versus Specifism: An Introduction
        Four Legalization Proposals: An Introduction
        Partial Decriminalization
        Prescription and Maintenance Models
        Harm Reduction
        Why Criminalization Can't Work

7.   Business as Usual?
        Stamping Out Drugs at Their Source?
        Push Down/Pop Up
        The Logistics of Eradicating Drugs at Their Source
        The Drug Trade as an Employer
        Drug Production as a Violent Enterprise
        Smuggling: Intercepting Drugs at the Border
        Arresting at the Dealer Level

8.   Will Drug Use/Abuse Rise under Legalization?
        Legalization and Use: Two Issues
        Worst-Case Scenario
        Human Nature
        Using Drugs, Drug Effects
        Frequencies of Use
        Continuance Rates

9.   Drugs and Crime
        Drug Crimes
        The Drug Use—Property Crime Connection: Three Models
        Drugs and Violence: Three Models
        The Drugs-Crime Connection Generally
        Violence, Dealing, and Organized Crime

10.  Alcohol and Tobacco: The Real Dangerous Drugs?
        Apples and Oranges
        Extent and Frequency of Use
        Years of Life Lost
        Primary versus Secondary Harm
        The Scorecard
        Controls on Alcohol and Tobacco

11.  Summary and Conclusions

      Appendix: A Brief Guide to Drug Effects




As we move toward the close of the twentieth century, we confront a seemingly endless array of pressing social issues: crime, urban decay, inequality, ecological threats, rampant consumerism, war, AIDS, inadequate health care, national and personal debt, and many more. Although such problems are regularly dealt with in newspapers, magazines, and trade books and on radio and television, such popular treatment has severe limitations. By examining these issues systematically through the lens of sociology, we can gain greater insight into them and be better able to deal with them. It is to this end that St. Martin's Press has created this series on contemporary social issues.
    Each book in the series casts a new and distinctive light on a familiar social issue, while challenging the conventional view, which may obscure as much as it clarifies. Phenomena that seem disparate and unrelated are shown to have many commonalities and to reflect a major, but largely unrecognized, trend within the larger society. Or a systematic comparative investigation demonstrates the existence of social causes or consequences that are overlooked by other types of analysis. In uncovering such realities the books in this series are much more than intellectual exercises; they have powerful practical implications for our lives and for the structure of society.
    At another level, this series fills a void in book publishing. There is certainly no shortage of academic titles, but those books tend to be introductory texts for undergraduates or advanced monographs for professional scholars. Missing are broadly accessible, issue-oriented books appropriate for all students (and for general readers). The books in this series occupy that niche somewhere between popular trade books and monographs. Like trade books, they deal with important and interesting social issues, are well written, and are as jargon free as possible. However, they are more rigorous than trade books in meeting academic standards for writing and research. Although they are not textbooks, they often explore topics covered in basic textbooks and therefore are easily integrated into the curriculum of sociology and other disciplines.
    Each of the books in the St. Martin's series "Contemporary Social Issues" is a new and distinctive piece of work. I believe that students, serious general readers, and professors will all find the books to be informative, interesting, thought provoking, and exciting.

George Ritzer       



First, there were the atrocity tales. Federal agents assault the San Diego home of Donald Carlson, a 45-year-old executive for a Fortune 500 computer company, using "flash-bang" grenades and automatic weapons; Carlson is hit three times and winds up in a hospital in critical condition. He was not a drug dealer, of course, but a completely innocent victim. His name was supplied to the police almost at random by a police informant seeking leniency for his arrest (Levine, 1996). The name of a parking lot attendant, Miguel, is given to the Drug Enforcement Administration by Tony, an often-arrested drug dealer. Together with federal agents, Tony entraps his friend in a bogus operation that literally involves the exchange of no drugs—indeed, not even any mention of drugs. The dealer walks away scott-free, with $300,000 for his troubles, while Miguel is arrested, ultimately managing to plea-bargain his way down to a four-year prison sentence (Levine, 1996). A 13-member SWAT team breaks down the door of the domicile of a 75year-old retired Methodist minister, Accelyne Williams, who is chased around the apartment and handcuffed. Rev. Williams suffers a heart attack and dies. It turns out the police had the wrong address (Anonymous, 1996). Kemba Smith, a college student, becomes romantically involved with a drug dealer; she is sucked into some of his operations. Today, Kemba sits in the Federal Corrections Institution for Women in Danbury, Conn., serving out a 24-year sentence; ineligible for parole, she will not breathe the air of freedom until 2016, five presidential elections from her sentencing (Stuart, 1996).
    Taken by themselves, these tales are frightening enough. But then there are the statistics, the overall picture. In 1970, there were roughly 200,000 prisoners behind bars in the United States; today, there are over a million, with another half a million in local and county jails. In 1950, 30 percent of all inmates in the United States were Black; in 1970, it was 40 percent. Today, it is a majority, over 50 percent, and growing. Between 1980 and the mid-199Os, the number of new commitments per year to state prisons on drug violations jumped well over 10 times—over 1,000 percent—from 8,800 to more than 100,000. In contrast, the increase for violent offenses during that period was only a shade over 50 percent. Today, there are more inmates incarcerated in state prisons for drug violations than for violent offenses. In 1980, drug violators made up 25 percent of all federal prisons; today, it is a clear majority, over 60 percent. A federally mandated sentence for the possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine is five years imprisonment; possessing only five grams of crack draws the same five-year sentence. In federal court, while only 27 percent of powdered cocaine defendants are Black, 88 percent of crack cocaine defendants are African-American (Lindesmith Center, 1996).
    Since 1981, with the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the United States has been waging a "War on Drugs." In many ways, this war has been harmful. One of its by-products has been the call for an end to the war. The issue has been hotly debated for more than a decade and a half, since this war was launched. Emphatic, righteous voices have chimed in on both sides. Today, what was regarded as an almost "unspeakable" proposal, the legalization of the currently illegal drugs, is seriously advanced in major newspapers and magazines across the country by serious, credible figures. Are we now facing a "new crisis of legitimacy" in the criminal justice system, brought on by a growing public awareness of penal institutions that are almost literally bursting at the seams with new prisoners and of a criminal justice system that administers grotesquely racially biased sentences (Duster, 1995)? Do these new and troubling developments cry out for drug legalization? Many observers believe so.
    This small book will attempt to answer such questions. In investigating the drug legalization issue, I remain convinced of several basic propositions. For starters, yes, the current war on drugs has been harmful; yes, changes need to be made. To determine a wise and sane drug policy, we need relevant evidence, facts, information. But ultimately, our decision as to what works best will be based mainly on ideological, not factual, issues. Facts are relevant here; they certainly rule out manifestly loony proposals. But at bottom, we'll choose one over another because it is more likely to yield the results we like. Even if we all were to agree on what the facts are, we won't agree on weighing certain values over others. Thus, investigating questions of value and ideology are central in any consideration of drug legalization.
    In the end, I am forced to remain a staunch proponent of a harm reduction policy. While the current system desperately needs fixing, I strongly believe that outright legalization would be a catastrophe. (In any case, there is quite literally no chance of implementing such a proposal any time soon; at the present time, discussing it remains little more than an interesting intellectual exercise.) Moreover, as I explain, different observers mean very different things when they use the term "legalization." Some imagine that the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom (or Canada, I have been told, or Sweden!), pursues a policy of legalization. Far from it! Hence, I've found it necessary to spell out just what different observers mean when they so glibly discuss what they imagine to be "legalization." I heartily endorse some of their proposals; some others would produce results that even those who propose them would have to agree are worse than our current conditions. Still, let's be clear on this: Many observers on both sides of the debate use the issue of harm versus harm reduction as window dressing. For them, the main issue is the triumph of one ideology or worldview over another. The victims be damned! In the face of such arguments, I cannot help but be a staunch pragmatist and utilitarian.
    Let us explore, then, you and I, the world of drugs and drug use, drug abuse and drug control, drug criminalization and drug legalization, to determine what we should do about these pressing, disturbing issues. The answers are far from obvious, despite what many combatants in this debate claim; all too often, they attribute their opponents' views to stupidity or villainy. In my view, the issues are complex and are filled with painful dilemmas. We are inevitably forced to accept the least bad of an array of very bad options, a single mix of results that range from poisonous to somewhat less poisonous. And those of us who do nothing will be forced, willy-nilly, to take a stand one way or another, since, if we do nothing, someone else will do it for us. We need to be armed with facts, a clarity of vision, a logical frame of mind, courage, and an awareness of how these issues fit in with the big picture. I hope that this book provides some of these things, and enables the reader to draw his or her own conclusions concerning some of the more urgent questions of our day.



I have adapted a very few sentences, paragraphs, and pages from the fourth edition of my book Drugs in American Society (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993); they are sprinkled throughout this volume. Permission to use this material is gratefully acknowledged. I would like to thank a number of friends and colleagues who have helped me in one way or another in writing this book: Ethan Nadelmann, Barbara Weinstein, Josephine Cannizzo, William J. Goode, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. The idea for the book was more George Ritzer's than my own. Scholars and researchers too numerous to mention shared necessary information with me. My students asked many questions that clarified my thinking about key issues. Perhaps most of all, I'm grateful to work in an area that offers interesting issues, lively debates, and intelligent researchers and authors. I would also like to thank the reviewers who offered constructive suggestions for the final draft of the manuscript: John F. Galliher, University of Missouri, Columbia; Marvin Krohn, State University of New York, Albany; and Peter J. Venturelli, Valparaiso University.


About the Author

Erich Goode is professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author, coauthor, editor, and coeditor of a number of books on drug use and deviance, including The Marijuana Smokers (Basic Books, 1970); Drugs in American Society, 4th edition (McGraw-Hill, 1993); Deviant Behavior, 5th edition (Prentice-Hall, 1997); and, with Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics (Blackwell, 1994).

Chapter 1.   Introduction

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