Some say that the Republican Party needs to find new issues to champion if it hopes to become America’s majority party. There is something to this. But being a conservative party, the GOP should also look to the past, where wisdom often resides.
In that spirit, Republicans once again should take a strong stand against drug use and legalization. Virtually no lawmaker in either party is doing so.
For his part, President Obama has said more about the NCAA men’s basketball bracket than he has about the dangers posed by illegal drugs. Gil Kerlikowske, the president’s “drug czar,” said last month that “The administration has not done a particularly good job of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.”
This is a startling admission, and there is a cost to abdication.
The drug-legalization movement is well-funded and making inroads. Voters in Washington state and Colorado passed ballot initiatives in November legalizing marijuana for recreational use. A bill to legalize marijuana was introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates last month. And Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to end federal prohibitions on marijuana use.
This is the perfect time for Republicans to offer counterarguments grounded in medical science, common sense and human experience.
For example: One of the main deterrents to drug use is because it is illegal. If drugs become legal, their price will go down and use will go up. And marijuana is far more potent than in the past. Studies have shown that adolescents and young adults who are heavy users of marijuana suffer from disrupted brain development and cognitive processing problems.
Drug legalization will lead to more cases of addiction, which shatters lives. The vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs started by using marijuana. John P. Walters, the drug czar in the George W. Bush administration, noted last year, “Legalization has been tried in various forms, and every nation that has tried it has reversed course sooner or later.”
Strong, integrated anti-drug policies have had impressive success in the United States. Both marijuana and cocaine use are down significantly from their peak use in the 1970s and ’80s.
So the policy arguments against drug legalization are all there; they simply need to be deployed.
But there is another, deeper set of arguments to be made.
In his dialogues, Plato taught that no man is a citizen alone. Individuals and families need support in society and the public arena. Today, many parents rightly believe the culture is against them. Government policies should stand with responsible parents — and under no circumstances actively undermine them.
Drug legalization would do exactly that. It would send an unmistakable signal to everyone, including the young: Drug use is not a big deal. We’re giving up. Have at it.
In taking a strong stand against drug use and legalization, Republicans would align themselves with parents, schools and communities in the great, urgent task of any civilization: protecting children and raising them to become responsible adults.
But the argument against drug legalization can go even further. As the late social scientist James Q. Wilson noted, many people cite the “costs” of and “socioeconomic factors” behind drug use; rarely do people say that drug use is wrong because it is morally problematic, because of what it can do to mind and soul. Indeed, in some liberal and libertarian circles, the “language of morality” is ridiculed. It is considered unenlightened, benighted and simplistic. The role of the state is to maximize individual liberty and be indifferent to human character.
This is an impossible stance to sustain. The law is a moral teacher, for well or ill, and self-government depends on certain dispositions and civic habits. The shaping of human character is preeminently — overwhelmingly — the task of parents, schools, religious institutions and civic groups. But government can play a role. Republicans should prefer that it be a constructive one, which is why they should speak out forcefully and intelligently against drug legalization.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush administration and special assistant to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the George H.W. Bush administration.