Don’t Go to Pot

Bill Bennett stands athwart the rush to legalize marijuana.

The “effort to legalize marijuana needs to be addressed head on,” former “drug czar” and secretary of education William J. Bennett and Robert A. White, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey, write in Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America.

“If it’s not stopped,” they believe, “we will soon look back and ask, ‘What were we thinking?’” It will be seen as “irrational” — “just as legalization of cigarettes would be, were cigarettes illegal.”

Bennett, host of the Salem national radio show Morning in America, talks about the book, as well as life and politics.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did Alaska make a very big mistake earlier this year by legalizing marijuana?

William J. Bennett: Alaska has made a very big mistake, but I believe in time the citizens of Alaska will come to recognize that fact. In 1982, Alaska decriminalized the possession of marijuana for those over 19 years of age. Over the next eight years, the state’s 12- to 17-year-olds used marijuana at more than twice the national average for this age group. As with other states, although the law was meant for adults, use among children went up. Alaskans responded in 1990 by a vote of 54.3 percent to 43.7 percent to recriminalize marijuana possession. It may take some time, but I believe that as the public in states that have legalized retail marijuana (or that have broadly permissive medical-marijuana programs) become aware of the harm widespread marijuana use is having on their state, and particularly on their children, they will take action to reverse course.


Lopez: It does seem that nearly every politician at this point has admitted to using it in his youth. And, as you point out, “according to Gallup, nearly 60 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.” Is this one of those issues where the culture has just moved along, and you’re fighting an old battle?

Secretary Bennett: Certainly the cultural perception of marijuana use has shifted dramatically over the past 45 years. In 1969, at the height of the Sixties counterculture, only 12 percent of Americans believed that marijuana should be legalized. By 2005, that number had risen to about 33 percent. Today, a majority of Americans support legalization. This has come about, in part, because the proponents of legalization are very well organized and funded. It’s also ironic, because today’s marijuana is so much more potent and dangerous than the marijuana of 45 years ago. The THC content — THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — 45 years ago was about 3 to 5 percent. Today, it averages just above 13 percent, meaning it’s three to four times more potent.

This is an ongoing battle, but it can be won. Tobacco smoking had broad cultural acceptance through the 1960s, but a sustained campaign of public-service messages to educate the population about the dangers of tobacco resulted in a huge reduction in smoking. We also had success on the drug front. In 1979, over 14 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds were regular users of marijuana. By 1992 that number had been reduced to 3.4 percent. That’s approximately a 75 percent reduction for teenage use. If we had a similar public-policy success of that magnitude, say in teenage pregnancy, we would be celebrating it from the rooftops.

I believe that a similar educational effort directed at marijuana use, particularly aimed at the young, would result in a cultural shift again.


Lopez: I often hear you say, in regard to the legalization of marijuana: “The last thing we need is to get any dumber.” I understand how an education secretary would say such a thing, but don’t Americans have the right to be as dumb as they want to be?

Secretary Bennett: I do not think that most people using marijuana do so with the intent of making themselves dumber. Indeed, I think most marijuana smokers reject the notion that marijuana does make you dumber, despite the medical science demonstrating that it does. As a society, we all have an interest in ensuring that America does not become less productive in an ever increasingly competitive world. As California governor Jerry Brown recently observed in commenting on legalization, “All of a sudden, if there’s advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation? The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.” He’s right.


Lopez: Similarly, you write: “It is a bitter irony that as our knowledge increases regarding the harm that smoking marijuana does to our health, public perception of those injuries decreases.” Some libertarians would say, “So what?” If you were writing a book simply pitching those libertarians, what might you emphasize?

Secretary Bennett: There are huge economic and social costs as a consequence of drug use. These costs are borne by everyone and are often paid for by government services. These increased health-care and treatment costs lead to a growth of government, which libertarians, in particular, should oppose. The consequences also manifest themselves in other ways, such as absenteeism and lost productivity in the workplace, work-related accidents, drunk-driving injuries and deaths, and the painful effects of addiction on family members. While we may never be able to fully reverse the burdens imposed on society by alcohol and tobacco users, that is hardly a reason to heap on significantly more social and economic damage so that some people can indulge their high in the name of freedom. We also know that legalization will negatively affect the factors that most influence marijuana use by children — perception of risk and of social acceptability, availability, and cost. While libertarians may claim that they want marijuana legalized only for adults, we know that legalization will lead to much wider use by teens and young adults.


Lopez: Charles Cooke put it this way in his National Review review of your book: “The Declaration of Independence tells us that governments are instituted among men to secure our liberties and to do little else besides. If new programs are violating those liberties, then they will have to go. Once again, Bennett and I are answering different questions. His: ‘Is marijuana sufficiently harmless to justify legalization?’ Mine: ‘What right does the state have to determine what I may put into my body?’ These approaches are irreconcilable.” Are they?

Secretary Bennett: I think Charles Cooke is probably right in terms of the different questions which we each think need to be addressed. However, I don’t think he fairly acknowledges that the Declaration of Independence is not the only document that addresses how we should be governed. I would note as well that his question would allow for no prohibition on the use of any drug. He, like many libertarians, fails to acknowledge that we are part of a broader society and that the actions we take have repercussions beyond ourselves. This is a fundamental difference in our perception of the world and our place in it. To that extent we probably are talking past each other, but although we’re talking past each other, we don’t live past each other. We live in the same society, and our families and communities will bear the consequences of our policies and choices.


Lopez: Do you hear a lot from parents on the topic of marijuana?   

Secretary Bennett: I certainly do hear from parents. Throughout the book I have included letters I have received from listeners to my radio show. Most are tales of children whose lives have simply wasted away because of the impact of marijuana use as a teen or young adult. One of the arguments legalization proponents make is that marijuana does not kill anyone. While that is not entirely true, we do know that for many young people, marijuana use kills promise and devastates families.


Lopez: You dedicate the book to “the men and women who serve on the front lines in the war on drugs at the local, state, and federal level.” Some conservatives would say they’re waging a costly and unnecessary battle. What’s your plea to them?

Secretary Bennett: The cost of drug abuse — to families who’ve experienced it with their children and siblings, with hospital admissions, drugged driving, crime, lost lives, lost productivity, and counseling, in short a whole range of horribles other than addiction and poor judgment — is much higher than the enforcement costs. We spend up to about $14 billion in enforcement costs — that’s a rounding error compared with what the costs of surrendering would be, and it’s a rounding error compared with what the current state of addiction and drug abuse yields.


Lopez: Both you and your wife have done work in education, and the inner city. Are there moral considerations? Obligations we owe to them that we should consider in policymaking?

Secretary Bennett: You bet. I remember when I was drug czar and visited multiple urban areas, housing projects, other dangerous neighborhoods. I never heard about legalization from the mothers and grandmothers there. But then, when I would go to a university or college in the same state, professors and students would promote the idea and want to debate it, if not shout down those of us who favored drug enforcement. Those who actually live (and die) with the reality of the drug trade and the depredation of drug abuse were the most in favor of the government and law enforcement doing more. It’s an odd moment in our country right now when there is so much focus on protecting children — from early education to health care to job opportunities — when at the same time more and more of society wants to make more available a substance that nullifies and reverses every single one of those efforts.


Lopez: You write: “We believe marijuana is dangerous and should remain illegal. . . . We make no bones about this, as, in short, we think the effort to legalize marijuana is as irrational as any effort to legalize cigarettes would be, were they illegal.” But the public view of marijuana is nowhere near that of tobacco. How on earth could public attitudes change so drastically?

Secretary Bennett: Isn’t it interesting? The public campaign against tobacco has worked. How? By stigmatizing use, making use more difficult, banning smoking in airports and other buildings, airing ads proclaiming its dangers, campaigning for tobacco-free kids, getting rid of Joe Camel, and showing graphic warnings of the dangers to the lungs. People are almost ashamed of lighting a cigarette in public now. We’ve done exactly the opposite with marijuana — we say nothing of the kind about marijuana that we have with cigarettes. Why does society care more about children’s lungs than their brains? It’s surrender and it’s a tragedy. The anti-tobacco campaign is a pretty good model for what the anti-marijuana campaign could look like. It worked, and it was right.

Lopez: Does anything depress you about the prospect of a Bush vs. Clinton 2016?

Secretary Bennett: I don’t get depressed by politics. People can blame Jeb Bush for his last name, but it’s not his fault. I think there are a lot of great candidates on our side, more than in any campaign in recent memory, and Jeb is one of them. His name is not who he is; his record and his ideas are who he is. That’s what distinguishes him from Hillary. She’s not her name either, but neither is she what Jeb is: an innovative thinker with a record of strong accomplishments. I think he’d win any race against her, and to me that’s just not depressing.


Lopez: What’s your favorite thing to do at this point in life?

Secretary Bennett: I still love being in the mountains, especially when I’m in Colorado, and I love the ocean in North Carolina where we spend a lot of time. Lately, I have very much enjoyed getting help in my work from my sons. My wife, Elayne, has been a steadfast colleague and helpmate for 32 years. Now, my sons join her and make my work better. My radio show still gets me up early and keeps me on my toes. I love the national seminar I get to engage in with the public every morning. There’s no shortage of things to talk about, and I’m reminded daily of how smart the American people are — much smarter than most of our politicians and media give them credit for. And of course, I read a ton and am usually working on a book, inspired by something I’ve read or heard about from listeners on my show.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, the editor-at-large of National Review Online, and the founding director of Catholic Voices USA. 



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