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June 11, 2009 -- CNN (US)

Debate: Ethan Nadlemann, Director of Drug Policy Alliance and William Bennett, Drug Czar Under Pres. H.W. Bush

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Transcript, excerpted from a longer show at:

CAMPBELL BROWN: Time for our "Great Debate."

And tonight's premise: The war on drugs is a failure.

The Obama administration just announced a new strategy to fight drug trafficking at the U.S.-Mexican border, adding literally hundreds of agents in the field and new technology at ports of entry. But critics say it's all basically for a lost cause.

So, joining us to debate, CNN political contributor Bill Bennett, who is host of the national radio talk show "Morning in America." He was also the nation's drug czar under President George H.W. Bush. And, officially, that is the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And he says we can win the war on drugs. On the other side of this, Ethan Nadelmann, who is founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to promote new drug policies and alternatives to the current battle that we're fighting, the war on drugs.

So, we want your opinion, too, we should add. Vote by calling the number on the bottom of your screen.

First, though, we're going to have option statements from each.

We have 30 seconds on the clock here, gentlemen.

Ethan Nadelmann, the premise once again, is: The war on drugs is a failure. Make your case.

ETHAN NADELMANN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE: Yes, I mean, there's no question about that.

I mean, drug use continues to be high. But, worse than that, people are dying of drug overdoses. The prisons are filled up. The United States leads the world in per capita incarceration. We have 5 percent of the world's population, 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population.

We rank first in the world in per capita incarceration of fellow citizens.

The drug war is what's driving this. Then look at Mexico, Colombia, look at Afghanistan. This is just like Chicago during prohibition or Al Capone times fifty. What's happening there is not a problem about drugs primarily. It's about the failure of prohibition strategies. These policies cannot work and putting criminal justice system front and center is the wrong way to do this.

BROWN: All right, Bill, 30 seconds.

WILLIAM BENNETT, FMR. DRUG POLICY DIRECTOR: The right strategies work when they are tried and used. We haven't done much in the last few years but we should. We had 24 million, 25 million drug users in 1979. In 1992, we had that number down to 11 million. That's more than a 50 percent reduction because the country fought back and fought strong.

If you want more people in prison, if you want more crime, if you want more trouble, you want more destroyed families, make drugs more available, make them legal and you'll have more of that.

BROWN: Let me have you address that, Ethan, because you laid out what you think the problems are here. Is legalization the answer in your view?

NADELMANN: Well, I'll tell you, I think that Bill's focused on the wrong bottom line. He points to the reduction in the number of people who told a pollster they were using marijuana or cocaine through the 1980s. But what he leaves out is that in 1980, there was no such thing as crack cocaine. By the time Bill Bennett became drug czar, it was a national epidemic.

1980, there was no such thing as drug-related HIV or AIDS, but by the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people were dying of that. 1980, we had 50,000 people behind bars on drug charges. Now we have half a million people behind bars tonight on a nonviolent drug charge. And in 1980, taxpayers were spending a few billions dollars for a drug war. Now, they're spending tens and tens of billions of dollars.

So the point is let's focus on the real bottom line. I want to reduce both the harms of drugs and I want to reduce the harms of our failed policies. And the best way to do that is not by doing more of the drug war that Bill Bennett initiated some years ago, it's by pursuing a different strategy that focuses on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated both with drug use and with our failed drug control policies.

BROWN: Bill, let me let you respond to that.

BENNETT: Yes. Well, there's a lot there. But there's a huge -- at the heart of it is a huge non sequitur because Ethan is saying we didn't have crack cocaine in the '80s and other problems till the late '80s. That's precisely the time when this country got most alarmed and pushed back the hardest and had the most success.

Now, there's all sorts of harm from drugs. There's the harm from drugs that comes from the violence, of course, the cartels. There is the harm from drugs that comes from people committing crimes in order to buy drugs. But there's also the harm from drugs that primary and largest part which comes from drug use itself.

Eighty-seven percent, a recent study by Barack Obama's ONDCP, the office I used to run, 87 percent of people tested who were arrested for crimes were on drugs. Another study shows 60 to 70 percent in the major cities of major crime, people are either on drugs or alcohol.

By the way, the drugs or alcohol don't care whether they are legal or not. You put more of this stuff into the system, you're going to have more dysfunction and more crime. And I think everybody can see -- I think Ethan Nadelmann will concede that if you have legalization, decriminalization, you're going to have more drug use. If you have more drug use, you will have more dysfunction, more crime, more disaster.

BROWN: Ethan?

NADELMANN: Yes. Well, I'll say let's just focus on the one area where I and Bill are clearly in disagreement and where I and my organization are clearly in favor of treating an illegal drug more like a legal drug, and that's with respect to marijuana.

Right now, you know, 40 percent of Americans say it should be legal, 50 percent of Democrats, independents, people under the age of 30, and a growing number of people out west in this country. Right? We have 800,000 Americans arrested last year simply for possessing a joint. That's almost 40 percent of all drug arrests.

We're spending $10 billion to $20 billion a year to enforce marijuana laws when instead we could be earning $10 billion to $20 billion in tax revenue. When people say that if you make marijuana legal, is going to make it more available to kids, I say look at the evidence.

Three national polls consistently show that young people say it's easier to buy marijuana today than it is to buy alcohol. So if we make marijuana legal, we'll reduce by hundreds of thousands the unnecessary arrests. We'll reduce taxpayer money down the drain by tens of billions. We'll bring in much needed revenue. Young people will not be at risk because the laws that failed so far seems to me is a win-win-win all around.

BROWN: But, Bill, let me have you respond to that narrowly because he's only talking about legalizing marijuana, not all drugs.

BENNETT: Yes, the argument shifts. It usually tends to shift in these debates. But let's remember that marijuana is the most abused drug by young people.

Now, the argument that because some of your people and some neighborhoods find marijuana more available than alcohol, therefore, let's make it even more available, I just don't see the logic of that. People, by the way, get in an awful lot of trouble with alcohol. Now, we can double or triple that trouble.

You know, I have been in these forums all over the country, Campbell. You go to the universities, you talk to some of the intellectuals, they want to talk about the legalization of marijuana.

Let me tell you where you don't hear this argument hopefully (ph). You don't hear it in the rehabilitation wards. You don't hear it in the inner cities. I never heard this argument in 110 inner cities I visited, and you don't hear it from parents and families where they've had to deal with this problem.

Marijuana is the single most prevalent drug that is involved in drug treatment right now. More kids are screwed up because of marijuana than any other drug. I see no reason to make it more accessible, to give it more permission and to make it cheaper and increase use.


BROWN: Ethan, very quickly.

NADELMANN: Campbell, I just have to say, Bill is wildly out of date when 40 percent of Americans say that it should be legal right now. That's among all groups of population including --

BENNETT: That's a poll. That's a poll.

NADELMANN: Including people in recovery, Bill.

BENNETT: That's a poll. That's a poll.

NADELMANN: Bill, I did not interrupt you. Please, be so polite.

BENNETT: That's a poll.

NADELMANN: Please allow me to speak.

BENNETT: OK. Of course.

NADELMANN: In this case, marijuana is popular. We had the current and last past presidents use this at this time. So I think the notion that marijuana is a wildly dangerous drug, Bill is wildly out of touch in this regard and so our young people are laughing at the message we heard being stated by people like William Bennett and his successors.


BROWN: OK. Let me take --

BENNETT: Well, you can laugh all you want but talk to the parents.

NADELMANN: Yes, Bill, I talk to the parents every single day, Bill.

BROWN: All right.

NADELMANN: The parents don't want their kids being arrested for marijuana.

BROWN: OK. I think on this point --

BENNETT: Parents' opinion is not your opinion either.

NADELMANN: And the parents don't want their kids being arrested for marijuana.

BROWN: All right, guys. On this point, I think we can agree that you both clearly disagree. But what we're going to try to do is what we do on this program every night, try to find a little common ground, an area or policy that you can agree on as we move forward.

We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back with common ground.


BROWN: And we are back with tonight's "Great Debate" premise, the war on drugs is a failure. CNN political contributor and former national drug czar Bill Bennett says no, there is still hope there. Ethan Nadelmann from the Drug Policy Alliance says yes.

We are looking now for common ground between the two of you. Ethan, where do you think that you and Bill Bennett can agree on this issue?

NADELMANN: Well, I'm encouraged that Bill is having this debate right now. And that makes me wonder whether he'd agree that it will be important to have a serious national debate around the issue, at least of ending marijuana prohibition.

BROWN: Bill, what do you think?

BENNETT: Yes. Sure. We can have that debate. We've had it for a while. It's actually been going on for a long time.

NADELMANN: No, no, Bill. I mean at another level.

BENNETT: I would hope that --

NADELMANN: I mean at another level.

BENNETT: I would hope -- I didn't -- don't interrupt me.

BROWN: All right. All right. Let him make his point, Ethan.

BENNETT: I respect -- I respect -- come on, Ethan. I respected your request not to interrupt.

The other thing I hope we could agree, Ethan would agree with me, we do not want young people using marijuana. Wouldn't you agree with that?

NADELMANN: I would agree with that, Bill. I don't think young people should be using these drugs.


NADELMANN: Particularly, look, any drug including marijuana can be dangerous. And when you see young people waking and baking, getting up in the morning getting high before they go to school, that's a real problem.

BROWN: All right.

NADELMANN: On the other hand, let's also acknowledge that the vast majority of people --

BENNETT: There's common ground.

BROWN: All right.

NADELMANN: Let's acknowledge that the vast majority of people have used marijuana never went on to have a real problem.

BENNETT: Let's end on common ground while we can.

BROWN: OK. I would, Bill. I do like to end on -- I'm absolutely in agreement I do like to end on a common ground.

OK. Bill Bennett, as always, thank you, Bill. And Ethan Nadelmann, a very good debate.

BENNETT: Thank you.

NADELMANN: Thank you.

BROWN: Thanks, guys. Have a good one.

And here's how you voted in tonight's "Great Debate." Eighty-six percent agree the war on drugs is a failure. Fourteen percent disagree. As always, this is not a scientific poll, just a snapshot from our viewers who called in. Many thanks for that.

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