Legalize All Drugs?
The 'Risks Are Tremendous' Without Defining The Problem

We've been looking a lot at the issue of addictive drugs, opioids. Heroin is the one we think of first, but there are lots of legal prescription painkillers which are also classified as opioids - also addictive, but certainly medically necessary to treat serious pain. Opioids are becoming the latest widespread and serious addiction problem in this country.

Again, heroin is the most serious - dangerous and cheap, available everywhere. In Harper's Magazine, Dan Baum has examined a new response to this latest addiction problem, legalization of drugs. But, Dan Baum writes, the risk is tremendous. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

DAN BAUM: Thank you for having me.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Now you go back covering the war on drugs. I wonder if you could tell us the story which kicks off your article.

BAUM: Well, I was starting work on a book about the politics of drug enforcement. And in 1994, I got word that John Erlichman was doing minority recruitment at a engineering firm in Atlanta. Well, I'm 60. Erlichman was one of the great villains of American history, a Watergate villain, and he was Richard Nixon's drug policy advisor. And Richard Nixon is the one who coined the phrase war on drugs.

And he told me an amazing thing. I started asking him some earnest, wonky policy questions and he waved them away. He said, can we cut the BS? Can I just tell you what this was all about? The Nixon campaign in '68 and the Nixon White House had two enemies, black people and the anti-war left.

He said, and we knew that if we could associate heroin with black people and marijuana with the hippies, we could project the police into those communities, arrest their leaders, break up their meetings and most of all, demonize them night after night on the evening news. And he looked me in the eyes and said, did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

WERTHEIMER: Now if that really was the way the war on drugs began, if it arose out of politics and not out of need or concern for people's health or safety, if Mr. Erlichman was serious about what he said, obviously the results of that decision have just been enormous.

BAUM: Catastrophic. And, you know, he's not the first. And Richard Nixon was not the first. The first drug laws in America were the opium laws in San Francisco in 1912, obviously passed to punish the Chinese. I found transcripts of state legislature debates from the 1930s where legislators in the South were talking about the menace of cocainized negroes threatening white womanhood, terrible language against Mexicans and marijuana going back to the '30s.

We have demonized racial and ethnic groups by the drugs that they do or don't use for a long time. Nixon brought it to a high art, and the drug war that we are suffering under now really begins with him.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that they - I could steal from President Eisenhower and say the drug industrial complex, the production and distribution of drugs and the incredibly big law enforcement effort to contain it - do you think that that actually could or should be backed down by making illegal drugs legal?

BAUM: I do. Look, we're Americans. We know how to do regulation. We know how to do taxation. Thank goodness we're not very good at repression. And that's what we've been trying to do for, you know, a long time. Drug use is not the problem. It is the Americans who become dependent on them that is our drug problem. It is tragic. It is tragic for the people involved, it is tragic for their family members. But it is a small problem.

WERTHEIMER: What do you mean it's a small problem? I think everyone in this country is accustomed to thinking that this is a huge problem.

BAUM: Depends how you define the problem. If you define the problem as drug use, it's big. But I don't define it that way. I define it as problem drug use - people who can't handle it, people who become dependent. And we're talking about maybe 4 million people in a country of 319 million people. I am not being flip about this. This is not something to ignore. This is something to manage better than we do precisely because it's so serious.

WERTHEIMER: Think we might be headed toward more attempts at partial legalization? I noticed that you say that Boulder, which is your hometown, is the most pot-friendly town in America.

BAUM: You could argue that.

WERTHEIMER: But surely marijuana is nothing like as addictive a drug - if it is an addictive drug - as cocaine or heroin.

BAUM: I agree. Although marijuana - I'm going to step away from some of the people in the drug reform movement and say marijuana's a pretty dangerous drug. A person can do himself a lot of harm with marijuana, and I think we need to acknowledge that.

WERTHEIMER: Legalizing drugs though, you say in your magazine piece that it's a terrible risk.

BAUM: Of course.

WERTHEIMER: Could you explain that?

BAUM: As a very smart guy in the piece says, look at our alcohol distribution system. We would not call it a total failure because we have some drunk drivers and because some teenagers get ahold of alcohol. It's not perfect, but it's certainly better than prohibition. None of us wants to go back to that.

Problems are hard to solve. They are easier to ameliorate. We could do a better job of living with these dangerous substances if we change the way we think about them.

WERTHEIMER: Dan Baum. His article in the April issue of Harper's Magazine is called "Legalize It All." Dan, thank you very much.

BAUM: Thank you. Really appreciate it.

Copyright © 2016 NPR.