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Dr. Lee P. Brown, Clinton's Drug "Czar," Identifies Eight Myths About Drugs in the Arguments of the Drug Legalizers


July 1994

Dr. Lee Brown, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House, delivered one of the keynote addresses at a conference on drugs and crime at the Harvard Law School on May 21, 1994, and boldly confronted head-on the question of legalizing drugs. Three days later his remarks were edited into an op-ed published in The Washington Times, "The dangerous illusions of drug legalization," (May 24, 1994, p. A19). The conference at the Harvard Law School was organized by Mike Weddle and John Holmes of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and funded in significant part by The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

Dr. Brown said the Administration's stance on legalization is: "Our number one goal is to reduce the number of drug users in America. Legalization is a formula for self-destruction and this Administration is unequivocally opposed to any 'reform' that is certain to increase drug use."

The following material is taken from the printed text of his May 21 speech at Harvard or from the May 24 issue of The Washington Times. (emphasis has been added at a few points).

On May 21 he said that he was "pleased" to talk to "an audience whose members have serious questions about the direction of national policy, and who are prepared to hear what we say about it. ... I know I am speaking to many who believe that our country's drug policy must be radically changed."

On May 24 he wrote in The Washington Times: "Justifiably, concern about crime and violence is high on the list of what Americans care about. As this concern increases, there is a heightened sense of need for dramatic action. Sometimes, however, such pressure leads to desperately conceived notions that will ultimately be more devastating than the current crisis. Legalizing drugs is one of those notions. It is not a new idea; debates over legalization have been going on for the past several years. Americans oppose the idea, and no serious-minded policy maker would ever consider it. What troubles me this time is the emergence of the issue right now."

On May 21 he said, "The use of illegal drugs is a very complex policy issue. It goes to the core of our behavior as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation. It has global implications. ... Our responses must be thoughtful, comprehensive, balanced and effective." On May 24 he wrote, "There can be no rational argument that legalization would prove to be a panacea to our social ills. On the contrary, it will only exacerbate the violence. For the first time in many decades, we have a comprehensive, coordinated strategy to deal with the underlying causes of drugs and crime. The Clinton Administration is totally committed to investing in America. Creative initiatives such as community policing, empowerment zones, national service, health care reform, worker retraining for the unemployed, and welfare reform offer a powerful combination of hope and opportunity to communities where drugs and crime normally thrive. How can support be sustained for efforts to revitalize communities hit hardest by drug abuse and violence if we are willing to let drug abuse freely occur?"

Brown also wrote, "Legalization advocates seem adept at raising the issue, but they have a tough time translating their ideas into anything that is practical and workable. They don't tell us what drugs they would legalize or where they would sell them and for how much -- as they continue to press the same fallacious arguments:"

At Harvard he said, "From time to time one hears some remarkable -- even bizarre -- assertions by so-called drug experts about what the drug situation is. The purported solutions then follow the mythology. Let me outline what I have come to call Eight Myths about Drugs. These can be put in straightforward terms."

Myth No. 1   "Everything is getting worse, and that nothing is getting better ... The so-called drug war is a failure and that we should abandon it in favor of another approach.

"In fact, (emphasis in original) drug use data from the nation's households and secondary schools show substantial declines in overall drug use over the past decade: In 1979, more than 23 million Americans used some illicit drug. By 1992 the number had dropped to 11.4 million. Past month cocaine use, which peaked in 1985 at 8.6 million users, had dropped to 1.3 million users by 1992. This was accompanied by a similarly dramatic decline in the use of cocaine by adolescents from the mid-1980s until 1992."

"We have a severe, continuing problem with the chronic, hard-core addicted use of drugs. We freely acknowledge this; indeed, we want this to be broadly known. The nation's 2.7 million hard- core drug users are our most serious concern. They cause the most damage to themselves, to their families and their communities. They are the most important single focus of our National Drug Control Strategy. As troubling, we have indicators of recent increases in the use of drugs by secondary school children. Overall, the country -- not the government, not a particular Administration, but the country -- has experienced major declines in non-addictive, casual use of illicit drugs. The number of users of any illicit drugs is today at the same level as it was in the early 1970s. Let us reason about this: can this really be called a failure?"

"Now it is sometimes alleged that one can't trust what government data says. In fact, the government does not collect the data. The Research Triangle Institute, an independent non- Government organization, conducts the Household Survey. The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research conducts the survey of drugs use in the nation's secondary schools."

Myth No. 2   "Current [drug] policy -- one suspects any current policy -- is making things worse. This myth says that current drug policy does not address the real problems, which are violence and HIV transmission."

"In fact, violence and HIV transmission are only part of the human carnage that results from drug use. Addiction, drug-exposed infants, drug-induced accidents, loss of productivity, loss of employment, family breakdown, and the degeneration of communities are others. All directly flow from drug use itself. As the number of drug users increases, these problems will multiply."

"Current policy directly addresses these issues through specific strategies to prevent new use, to effectively treat hard-core users, and to bring overwhelming force against the street markets."

Myth No. 3   "Enforcement just adds to the problem. Drug enforcement and the application of criminal justice should be given up in favor of harm reduction approaches."

"In fact, effective enforcement serves to reduce drug supply, drive up prices, reduce the number of users and decrease the effects of chronic hard-core use. There is a demonstrable inverse relationship between the price of cocaine and people seeking emergency room treatment. The criminal justice system, moreover, provides means to remand drug offenders to effective treatment."

On May 24th, on this point, Brown set forth one of the legalization advocates' "fallacious arguments" in these terms: "Drug legalization will reduce the burden of our prison and court systems." Brown replied, "Why do we have to legalize drugs to ease prison and jail overcrowding and lighten court dockets? Effective drug control requires bold and effective programs to bring a stop to the recidivism that is overwhelming our criminal justice system.

"The recent creation of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in the Washington-Baltimore region to target chronic, hard-core drug use is the type of programming that is needed. President Clinton's anti-crime agenda calls for the development of innovative concepts like drug courts and boot camps to address the non-violent offender population. According to the National Center for State Courts, about 20 local jurisdictions -- most of them large urban areas -- are either experimenting with or running full-time programs that either provide treatment and rehabilitation for offenders (as opposed to incarceration) or separate courts for drug violators to improve drug case flow.

"In Dade County, Florida, for example, prosecutors and defendants in relevant cases are allowed to reach an agreement where the defendant is diverted from incarceration into rehabilitation. Some court systems, such as the ones in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. combine both these innovative approaches in one."

By May 24th, Dr. Brown had restated this "myth" as the following "fallacious argument": "Drug legalization would allow drug abuse to be treated as a social and health problem, rather than a criminal justice matter." His rejoinder: "We do not need to legalize drugs to pay more attention to the social or health aspects of drug abuse. Promoting health and social concerns would seem foolish while at the same time we make drugs more available. President Clinton has proposed the largest- ever treatment budget for hard core drug abusers in his fiscal 1995 budget request [$2.8744 billion dollars]. Certainly, our administration sees it as more than a crime problem."

Myth No. 4   "There is massive support for policy change by social thinkers, policy-level officials, and the public at large. This includes broad support for legalization, or the decriminalization of drug use.

"In fact, there is no massive support for legalization. A 1990 Gallup Poll showed that 80% of the public thought that legalizing drugs was a bad idea. Only 14% thought it was a good idea. Among American 12th graders surveyed in the 1992-93 school year, 84% said that their friends would disapprove of their smoking marijuana regularly, and 94% said their friends would disapprove of their taking cocaine occasionally.

"Reflecting the views of the American people, there is no meaningful support within Congress for the legalization of illicit drugs. And in fact, policy-level officials who are directly responsible for the drug issue -- beginning with the President oppose legalization. I do, too."

On May 24, Brown wrote, "People have asked about the Clinton policy on drug legalization. The president has made his position on legalization quite clear: The Clinton Administration is vehemently opposed to drug legalization. In the national drug strategy, the president stated, 'this Administration will never consider the legalization of illegal drugs.' [p. iv, National Drug Control Strategy, Reclaiming Our Communities From Drugs and Violence, February 1994, The White House] It is not an idea we embrace in any form."

Myth No. 5   "Legalizing drugs, or decriminalizing drug use, will eliminate the illegal drug markets and the violence in our streets.

"I do not dispute that drug markets do, in fact, generate violence. But the way to deal with the markets and the associate violence is to dry up the pool of users through effective prevention and treatment, and through the use of street enforcement, as many communities throughout the country are now struggling to do."

On May 24, Brown wrote regarding this "fallacious argument", "Legalization advocates just don't get it. Many drugs are illegal because they are addictive. They are mind-altering and cause catastrophic outcomes. People who are addicted to them cannot moderate or control their use. Therefore, the notion that legalization will remove profits is specious. Because these substances are addictive, when legalized government drug stores close for the night, a money-making underground market for drug abusers will open up to serve clients in need of a fix. And you can be dead sure they will sell drugs that are not legalized -- as well as the new ones created by enterprising drug cartels."

Myth No. 6   "Legalizing drugs will be free of cost. As this myth goes, there is nothing to suggest that legalizing drugs will increase drug use, or its consequences.

"In fact, the suggestion that legalizing drugs will not increase drug use is a fantastic myth. Our own national experience with Prohibition is indicative of what would happen if drug laws and drug enforcement were eliminated. Alcohol use data from the 1930s shows clearly that the repeal of the Volstead Act resulted in an immediate, sustained rise in the use of alcohol to levels higher than those that existed prior to Prohibition. We believe that the repeal of drug control laws would, likewise, result in an immediate, sustained rise in the use of drugs -- and a concomitant rise in the casualties of the use of drugs."

Myth No. 7   "There are excellent foreign models to show that decriminalization works: the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are two.

"This is another fantastic myth. One need only read the international press to realize the degree to which the Dutch have visited upon themselves misery from drug abuse by enacting drug laws that go unenforced, and policies that encourage 'responsible' use rather than discourage any use at all. The Dutch are pleased to say they have remained mostly unscathed by drug use by their own citizens. They cannot say the same of the many thousands of foreign visitors who arrive to buy drugs, steal or panhandle to keep using them, and then ask the Dutch to treat them for addiction.

"And one need only recall the disastrous experience of Great Britain with the controlled distribution of heroin. In the years between 1959 and 1968 -- according to the 1981 British Medical Journal -- the number of heroin addicts in the U.K. doubled every sixteen months. The experiment was, of course, terminated. But addiction rates in the U.K. have not subsided.

"At the same time, no one mentions Italy, which permits heroin and other drugs to be used legally, and where the number of heroin addicts -- some 350,000, by official estimates -- and the level of HIV prevalence -- an estimated 70 percent -- are higher than those in any other country in Western Europe. I ask myself at times why those who advocate drug policy reform are so quiet about the Italian model."

On May 24, Brown's response to the Great Britain-Netherlands myth was: "It is not meaningful to compare the United States to other countries when it comes to social and economic profiles, and conditions like poverty, crime and violence. Yet no nation permits the unregulated purchase and sale of scheduled drugs. An experiment with an open air 'drug park' for addicts in Zurich, Switzerland, was closed two years ago in the wake of rising crime. There is absolutely no international groundswell of support for drug legalization. The Council of Europe, as well as 112 nations attending a 1990 global drug conference, reported strong opposition to legalization. The United Nations has warned that drug legalization would not contribute to solving the problems of production, trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs."

Myth No. 8   "And then there is a final, eighth myth. This one says that drug use is a personal matter, and that it affects no one other than the user.

"There is no good thing to say about this. Given what we know about the effects of drugs, this is simply wrong. No one familiar with alcohol abuse would suggest that alcoholism affects the user only. And no one who works with the drug-addicted would tell you that their use of drugs has not affected others -- usually families and friends in the first instance."

"Through this day, you heard a number of views about the so-called war on drugs and what it supposedly does or does not do. Let me make a simple point, now: the war analogy is false. We in the Clinton Administration do not use this term to describe the long, difficult struggle to free Americans from the grip of use and addiction. We do not make 'war' on the American people. And we do not find useful a concept that suggest a beginning and an end to this struggle, with 'victory' as a goal.

"No doubt it is helpful to some to use the war terminology as a straw man. But the reality of drug use, and the policies that must address the problem are very different, and I suggest that it is time to recognize the reality rather than the mythology -- here, as well as with the other myths that I have mentioned. Let me conclude with a few overall points.

"First, given the what the overwhelming number of Americans want, and given what we have to do to address the terrible consequences of drug use, legalization is a marginal issue. It does not get to the core of the problem. In seeking to satisfy the few, it subverts the best interests of the many. In purporting to provide a quick, simple, costless cure for crime and violence in America, it fails to suggest how more drug availability will not lead to more drug use -- and more devastating consequences.

"It does not deal with the essential business of responsible policy-making:
how to provide effective prevention education for adolescents;
how to make effective treatment available for our estimated 2.7 million hard-core drug users;
how to develop effective workplace strategies that reduce accidents, reduce employer's health care costs, and improve productivity.
How to ensure that health care reform provides for those in need of treatment. And it does not deal with the essential business of bringing together health policy and criminal justice policy, to improve society as a whole.

"This is the real story: the day-in-day-out, blood and guts of policy-making that deals directly with the very complex issues of human behavior, that recognizes that there are no simple solutions.

"In 1917, the renowned American journalist and social observer, H.L. Mencken, remarked: 'There is always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong.'

"To the overwhelming number of Americans, to the Clinton Administration, to the American Congress, to American policy makers of this as well as prior Administrations, to Americans involved with drug programs across the country, to Americans in drug-blighted communities across the country, legalization is exactly such a solution -- neat, plausible, and wrong. Speaking for these Americans and for this Administration, I can tell you that it's just not going to happen.

"What we need to do is to get on with the business of reducing drug availability, preventing drug use, treating addicts, of restoring the value of the American family -- in short, of addressing some of the most basic and pressing issues of the country.

"I invite those who seek policy reform to light a candle and stop cursing the dark. Come in out of the cold, work with us on these problems -- help us find realistic and meaningful solutions to drug use and its devastating effects on millions of our citizens. Let us get on with the serious business of drug policy, together. Thank you."

On May 24th after analyzing the "myths," Dr. Brown concluded his argument as follows: "These are not the only myths about drug legalization. The one point that legalization proponents always seem to overlook is what effect drug legalization would have on our youth. Already, the nation is reeling from a wave of youth violence that is particularly devastating to young African-American males, who are both victims and perpetrators. African American males have the highest violent crime victimization rate and are half of all homicide victims. Nine of every 10 African American homicide victims were killed by other African Americans. To introduce legalized drugs into this mix would be the moral equivalent of genocide.

"Aside from the violence, do we really think that fewer teenagers -- already increasing their use of cigarettes and alcohol -- would not take the plunge and experiment with drugs if we legalize them?

"Increased drug abuse trends concerning youth continue to surface. Just last fall, anti-drug groups in Massachusetts warned parents there to be on the lookout for a new teen drug use trend -- hollowed out cigars called 'blunts,' filled with marijuana.

"Americans have said in recent opinion polls that they are most concerned about drugs and crime. The public expects policy makers to discuss serious, thoughtful, intelligent strategies to deal with these complex and difficult matters. This is not the time to discuss proposals that will bring our communities more addiction, more crime, more violence, and a whole new set of medical and legal worries -- all things that would come from society's transformation into an open-air drug market.

"Think about it."

Dr. Brown has a Ph.D. in Criminology from the University of California, Berkeley.