Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America (2016)

Chapter 5

How the Culture Once Successfully Fought Back on Substance Abuse

Following a chapter on myths, it is worth taking on one more: that we simply cannot win or make serious progress in “a,” “the,” or “any” war on drugs. As to whether the war on drugs is a “failure,” as many—including Republicans and Democrats—often say, that is debatable. The annual budget of just the New York City Police Department is approximately $4.6 billion, more than half of what it costs the entire nation to enforce marijuana laws.1 Yet there still is crime in New York City. Have the police or the efforts against crime failed? Or, rather, are they a necessary force for safety that costs money to maintain? Can and do they improve statistics over time? Yes, obviously efforts to reduce crime can succeed.

That a lot of money is spent while a problem continues is not seen as a sign of failure in almost any context other than drugs. We spend a lot of money on various government obligations in this country. Indeed, budgets go up almost every year in every government department from the local city to the federal government. Take your local US Attorney’s office. That it still exists, that its budget increases every year, does not mean it is failing to do its job; it simply means it has a big job to do. Somehow the effort to fight against drug use and abuse is seen in a different light. The money spent is seen as an indication of failure simply because drug use and abuse continues in this country. We say that about almost nothing else we spend money on in America.

However, the question arises, can we do better? The answer is obviously yes, and the truth is that we once did better—much better—and not so long ago. The story of how we, as a society, did that and how we let up is both instructive and prescriptive, because to make major headway again would actually not take much money. It may, however, take something much more difficult to provide: a change of attitude, a change of thinking, both from our elected officials and from our cultural leaders and entertainers.

Today there are approximately twenty-five million users of illicit drugs.2 Marijuana is the most frequently used of these drugs, with about nineteen million current users, and usage on a steady increase over the past several years.3 These numbers, however, are not the worst they have been in our lifetimes. It is a handy premise of many that we cannot stop people from using illegal drugs. It is a convenient argument that we need to legalize them, but that is surrender. It is surrender to murderous cartels, it is surrender to drug dealers, and it is surrendering our children to impaired, less productive, shortened, and possibly even disastrous lives.

We actually once did get drug use down in this country, to record low levels, because we took it seriously as a nation and as a culture. We are losing that sensibility today. The numbers prove it, as do some of the cultural messages being disseminated and, frankly, not being disseminated.

A Plan to Reduce Illicit Drug Use

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In 1979 we reached the high-water mark of illicit drug use and abuse in this country, with over twenty-five million drug users (over twenty-three million of them marijuana users) in a population of about 225 million. By 1992 we’d reduced drug use in this country to its low-water mark, twelve million users; we more than halved the number. We had over 14 percent of our population abusing drugs thirty-five years ago. We got that number down to under 6 percent by 1992. In 1979 over 14 percent of those aged twelve to seventeen were regular users of marijuana. By 1992 that number had been reduced to 3.4 percent.4 Today, that number is over 9 percent.5 Over all ages, we have almost the same number of regular drug users today as we had at our high-water mark. This is the same number of Americans, the same number of souls addicted to drugs. We had gone from over 14 percent to fewer than 6 percent and are now creeping back up to 10 percent. See here:

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Looking at the effort from 1979 to 1992, an honest statistician or public policy expert would have to admit that a reduction of 50 percent or more is an enormous public policy success by any definition. In fact, it is hard to think of almost any other public or national policy effort in which we reduced any problem by that much. How did we achieve that and how did we lose it?

In the 1980s, the dangers of drug use became a national focus. That’s how we tackled it. Today the harms of drug abuse are almost nowhere on the national radar screen. Quick questions: can anyone name the current drug czar? Can anyone tell us if there is a current drug czar? The inability to answer those questions tells most of the tale of the seriousness with which the government takes this issue and how the general media covers it.

When the drug issue does pop up, it fades quickly. Take a look at some of the national and international talents we have recently lost to substance abuse problems: just to name a handful, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Such unbelievable, remarkable, unique talents, wasted and now gone. For each of those six, how many more do we lose whose names are not known? How many future Whitney Houstons? How many future discoverers and geniuses and trailblazers in science or the arts? How many plain good citizens whose lives made a wrong turn, never to come back? It is true, marijuana was not the cause of the deaths of any of the above, but as we will see, marijuana was where most of their drug stories began. As one caller to my (Bill Bennett’s) radio show put it recently and as we will document: “Not everyone who uses marijuana goes on to harder drugs, but nearly everyone who goes on to harder drugs started with marijuana.”

Dear Bill:

My husband had two sons from his first marriage, one who became a high school math teacher and coach and who successfully raised a family in his one and only marriage. The other son, younger by five years, had lived for a longer period of time with his mother, who had lupus and was also an alcoholic/addict. For her younger son’s 15th birthday, she gave him a case of beer and taught him how to smoke pot… and from then on, he slowly moved farther and farther into the same world as his mother. By the time I met him, he was 21 and in college, but not even close to graduation. He finally left college and started looking for jobs, but of course without a degree, little was available to him. He blew through several jobs before he went back to his mom’s house, with the reason that she was very sick and needed his help to take care of her. After she died, he stayed there, and he did manage to clean up for a while, get a job and several promotions, got married, and fathered a beautiful baby girl. However, about three years into his marriage, when he was working as an assistant manager at a major truck stop, his boss discovered that money was missing from the safe. It turned out that my stepson was buying heroin with it. The company sent him to a detox center a couple of hundred miles away, where he lived for six weeks and seemed to do well, but it didn’t take long for him to slide back into heroin use. He went back to detox, but left before finishing the whole course this time, and his wife told him not to come back home. He lived with us for a little while before taking off for an aunt’s house (she had agreed to take him in under her very strict rules) in Arizona. He got a job in construction and soon moved to an apartment with one of his cousins… and all the drug behavior started all over again. Then suddenly, at age 32, he was found dead. It has never been clear if he shot himself or if his cousin shot him during an argument or what. His father and brother were devastated, and I was just horrified. Age 32… only 17 years since his mother had introduced him to pot. Since then, I’ve never doubted that pot was dangerous in itself or a gateway.

Marilynn in TX

We have seen a major cultural shift in attitudes toward drugs, especially marijuana. We have gone from being united in the 1980s and early 1990s in recognizing the harm caused by drug use, to the culture of the late 1990s through today, in which drug use, or at least marijuana use, is thought not to be harmful and sometimes thought to be helpful. As the Monitoring the Future survey results on drug use show, and as common sense would indicate, when perceived risk falls, use increases. Kevin Sabet said it well: “Education about the health dangers of marijuana use is the key to increasing perceived risk, just as prevention is key to lowering the long-term costs to society of drug treatment. It has been estimated that for every dollar we invest in drug use prevention efforts, up to ten dollars is saved in treatment costs.”6

Those old enough to remember will recall how much the cultural message used to be anti-drug. There were the “This is your brain on drugs” ads that were ubiquitous on television. There were sitcoms aimed at children that featured anti-drug messages. President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Nancy Reagan, in their tenures, gave innumerable speeches on the harms of drug use. When I (Bennett) was appointed the nation’s drug czar, President George H. W. Bush had the entire cabinet attend my swearing-in ceremony to send a message. When President Obama’s drug czar was sworn in, not even the President attended; Vice President Joe Biden was left with the honor. That sent a message too, or a lack of one. That drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, ultimately left, and the job was then held by an acting director, Michael Botticelli.

As I (Bennett) wrote several years ago, during the late 1980s, when we were serious as a nation about drug use, the news media also helped simply by giving intense coverage to the devastation wrought by drugs. People sitting in their living rooms were watching families and neighborhoods being ripped apart by drugs, and they began to pay attention.

One of the most encouraging signs of a strong cultural shift away from drug use occurred when I (Bennett) visited with Richard Frank, the president of Disney Studios. He asked me to address the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences when I was drug czar and the Academy responded, telling me there was a new “sobriety chic” in Hollywood, and that drug use was no longer “in.” What I told Hollywood is a message we should be repeating again and again, not just to Hollywood (if we can), but also to friends, neighbors, and educators in the suburbs of America: your neighborhood may be stable and well situated. Its residents have resources of which they can take advantage. Many can afford expensive drug treatment programs that cost tens of thousands of dollars a month. Nonetheless, “For every Hollywood and Beverly Hills, there is a Watts. For every Chevy Chase, Maryland, there is an Anacostia. For every Scarsdale, there is a Harlem. We should not kid ourselves, often it is the wealthier communities that fuel the drug cartels’ and dealers’ businesses. That, after all, is where the money is.”

Our warning was that the affluent should not become immune to the dangers in their own communities, nor to the struggles of the underclass who can least afford cycles of dependency and abuse. After all, Hollywood bore some responsibility for getting us into the drug mess by glorifying so much drug use in the 1970s. They were honorable in helping us get out in the mid-to late 1980s, when very few movies glorified drug use and some made strong anti-drug statements.

The culture of indifference to drugs (at best) and glorification of them (at worst) was put on the run, much as the culture of indifference to cigarette smoking was put on the run. Not so long ago, one could see Johnny Carson smoke on The Tonight Show. It was commonplace for actors to smoke on television, and for people to smoke in restaurants, on airplanes, and in their offices. Today one has to tune into Mad Men, a cable television show depicting New York City’s Madison Avenue advertising industry in the 1960s, to see smoking on television. If one wants to smoke during business hours today, he or she has to walk outside, even in the cold sub-zero winters in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and often stay twenty or more feet away from the entrance of a building. One can no longer smoke in airplanes and only two airports in America even have smoking rooms. Indeed, some airports, Indianapolis as one example, ban smoking both inside and anywhere outside the airport. Smokers receive scowls and uninvited comments today. We even read movie reviews in major newspapers today that alert us, “Warning: Cigarette smoking depicted.” We have not seen a review in a long time with a warning about the depiction of marijuana smoking or other drug use.

Our Culture Is Sending the Wrong Message

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Sadly, the pendulum has swung in the exact opposite direction, and now marijuana smoking, far from being stigmatized like cigarette smoking, has been glamorized and even celebrated. Where once it was seen as cool to smoke cigarettes, it is now the height of uncool. Where once one would be thrown out of college for possessing marijuana, today the popular student is the one with the medical ID card.

What was one of the most popular television shows of this past decade, with a seven-year run, starring some of Hollywood’s best talent (and still available on the Web)? A weekly show called Weeds. It was not about gardening. It was on the culturally hip Showtime.

Starring the highly talented and popular Mary-Louise Parker and featuring actors and actresses such as Kevin Nealon, Lee Majors, and Julie Bowen, Weeds was a very popular weekly drama/comedy about the life and times of a marijuana-growing and -dealing family headed by Parker’s character. The show made light of marijuana culture, of marijuana growing, dealing, and smoking. While the audience was entertained by the fictional family Parker headed (as she kept the family afloat growing and selling marijuana), a few story lines from the show raised the eyebrows of those of us who do not think marijuana dealing and smoking are all that enjoyable or funny.

Parker’s character, Nancy Botwin, dated a DEA agent who was ultimately killed in a drug bust she was responsible for. One of her teenage sons became a marijuana smoker and dealer. Her friends and brother-in-law got involved in her trade and became dealers and smugglers (of both marijuana and illegal aliens). She slept with practically every unrelated male character in the show. It was actually a pretty sad life when one took a step back and realized the sum and substance of the Botwin family existence, even as the comic portrayal resulted in audiences’ rooting for her and her family’s success in their escapades against law enforcement.

The point for the audience was to laugh and cheer for the Botwin family as they engaged in a lifestyle clouded in marijuana smoke. The tragedies mentioned above were glossed over as stumbling blocks they had to overcome along the way toward the family’s ultimate success in its business.

Death, dropping out of school, sexual escapades, and addiction (not to mention occasional jail time) are, actually, a rather typical tale for those who succumb to a lifestyle of addiction and/or drug dealing. It is not a “success” that any family we know would choose. The DEA is in the way, the law is in the way, and conventions like school for teenagers are in the way—in the way of the Botwin family’s “success,” which it always seems to achieve. The audience is enticed to celebrate the Botwin family’s overcoming the laws and conventions in their way. If you think our portrayal is a bit harsh or overstated, consider the show description from the head of Showtime, Robert Greenblatt: “Our ratings were va-va-va-voom! Who said hedonism is passé?”7

The problem of drug use and abuse has become, if not passé, something we have either turned a blind eye toward, become inured to, or—thanks to Hollywood—actually cheered on. Perversely, what we used to denounce, too many of us have come to accept, defend, and even positively support. Fifteen or twenty years ago, such a show would never have made it on air. As a nation and a culture, we took this issue seriously. Drugs, including marijuana, were not meant for laughs or to be celebrated.

Stigmatization and illegality are nearly gone for marijuana, and use has gone up—chronic use has in fact increased 84.3 percent since 2000.8 In constant dollars, the money spent by Americans on marijuana went up from $21.6 billion in 2000 to $40.8 billion in 2010.9 That is more than Americans spend each year on pornography, Halloween, and video games combined. Contrast that with the $8 billion spent on law enforcement against marijuana and tell us where the real waste is.

How can we reclaim the high ground in the cultural messages we deliver about marijuana? We can do it without raising a single penny in taxes. First, and most importantly, we must do it through education. Regrettably, most people are simply unaware of the dangers of marijuana or the increased potency of THC in today’s marijuana, both of which we documented earlier. Let us bring back the ads detailing the dangers of marijuana, but with all the improved graphics and technology that are now at our disposal. Corporations interested in productivity and workplace safety have every reason to pay for these ads. Second, take a page from the huge advances our nation has made in addressing issues such as cigarette smoking, cancer, and other health and social problems. How did we do it? Everyone got involved; everyone from the top of our culture to the bottom, everyone from industry to politicians to Hollywood. Hollywood’s charitable program Stand Up to Cancer provides a great example for other issues.

So how about a Stand Up Against Drug Abuse campaign? Captains of industry must help, but that includes Hollywood. Indeed, Hollywood buy-in is critical. We now have a large crop of actors and actresses who have damaged their lives and careers with drug use and abuse and miraculously got sober and stayed sober, and they never want to go back. Start with someone like Robert Downey Jr. He was the most promising actor of the 1980s, and then his drug abuse robbed him of a lot of life. It nearly ended his career as he was arrested again and again. Today he’s been drug-free for at least ten years and told Parade magazine recently, “I used to be so convinced that happiness was the goal, yet all those years I was chasing after it, I was unhappy in the pursuit. Maybe the goal really should be a life that values honor, duty, good work, friends and family.” Certainly this is not a bad ethic to teach to others.

The list of actors and entertainers who have been fortunate enough to overcome their addictions is a long one. Society has cheered for them and repaid them for their recovery at the box office. We think it would be a good idea to ask many of them to help deliver a national message to prevent others from going through what they did. Unfortunately, not everyone makes it. Those who do are the fortunate ones, and their luck can be rewarded. Let them be role models for what not to do. Let them testify to what it was like thinking they were going to die. Let them testify to waking up in a cold jail cell. Let them testify to the ruined relationships and the time they lost forever and wish they had back. And let them do it in a message that we see over and over again. Let’s engage a national campaign with the likes of Beyoncé, Carrie Underwood, Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson, the Williams sisters, Tom Brady, Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick, Brett Favre, and Russell Wilson. These are, of course, just examples. Include athletes, actors, and musicians who have not ever succumbed to drug use. We know how to do this—this issue has earned it.

Let us urge our leaders, our presidential candidates and Presidents, to get with the message, too. They are the best witnesses there are, and they are the most listened-to human beings on the planet right now. When the President speaks, it still means something in America, just as it does when he does not talk about an issue.

Then let us get to work on a national fund to fight marijuana medication and legalization initiatives in other states. The pro-marijuana lobby is very well funded and organized. The anti-marijuana advocates fight state by state, year by year. We do not need to invest in retracting and recalling initiatives where they have already passed. Our view is that the citizens in those states will see their folly in time and do that themselves. Instead, taking a page from Abraham Lincoln, let us stop legalization where it is and arrest its spread, putting its use, credibility, and abuse on the course toward ultimate extinction. Our cause will lead to a healthier, safer, more intelligent, and happier America.

There are not many public policy success stories of turning a tide in America once an ill has been normalized. It happens rarely, but we have seen it in race relations. We have seen it in reducing crime through better policing with innovative programs such as CompStat and the use of criminological theories similar to “broken windows.”* We have seen it with cigarette smoking. We have seen it with drunk driving. In all, almost none of it required more public money than was already being spent. With the exception of crime reduction, most of it was attitudinal, achieved through education and messaging… and, ultimately, that was what helped lower crime too. Surely we can develop effective drug awareness education and messaging programs to effect a reduction in drug use. In other words, lowering substance abuse rates, like lowering crime, cigarette smoking, and drunk driving, is not about ability, it is about will. It is not about whether we can do it, it is about whether or not we will do it.