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  • Drugs, the Nation and Free Lancing: Decoding the Moral Universe of William Bennett
  • William E. Connolly (bio)

“As I sometimes did, I was freelancing. I hadn’t received White House clearance for my remarks... But I would also try to throw out an idea with the intent of sparking a debate, to get the national conversation going in a new direction...”

—William J. Bennett

The Drug Confessional

“... though I never used drugs, I spent almost all of 1965 through 1975 on or around a college campus.”

—William J. Bennett

If you are a liberal politician, journalist or academic in contemporary America, there is a definite expectation that you confess before discussing drugs and drug policy. This demand reflects the sense that we know where the drug problem in America started, what dangers drugs pose, how to respond to those dangers, and Who ought to preside over the responses. More pointedly, it conveys the judgment that the generation of Americans now called upon to wage war on drugs is the same one that initiated a decade of drug fantasies in the middle sixties. Those over fifty are guilty. Confession might cleanse our souls, clear our minds, and allow us to become born again. We can regain a measure of moral legitimacy by placing ourselves squarely within the culture that makes morality possible.

Perhaps you once found cocaine to be an aphrodisiac. Or that LSD discloses profound truths otherwise unavailable to rationalists and technocrats. Or that marijuana enhances your sensitivity, enabling you to experiment with new thoughts and ways of life in a corrupt culture. The typical confessional goes like this: “I was a Liberal (secularist, New Leftist, recreational drug user, countercultural radical) in the Sixties. But now...” Here is my version:

I am an amateur, when it comes to drugs. I take aspirin to relieve pain. I inhaled a little pot in the good old days. I drink white wine, when the social occasion allows it. I still love the runner’s high. And I claim to have risen to “the zone” in basketball a few times, though many of my former playing partners doubt it. I have yet to become addicted to the drugs I take to be most dangerous, such as cocaine, religious fervor, tobacco, heroin or nationalism. Even academic drugs of choice such as alcohol, rationalism, Prozac, empiricism and deconstruction remain under pretty decent control. Though some may argue about this. There is danger of denial in this domain.

As this amateur sees it, there are a few modest things that might be done to reduce the self-destruction and social violence accompanying the most addictive drugs:

First, since fundamentalist religion and powerful street drugs are often found in the same or adjoining neighborhoods, we might conclude that both often involve protective, defensive responses to extreme suffering, demoralization and hopelessness. So, federal, state and local action to promote jobs, housing, education, and safety in the poorest communities is the most crucial thing.

Second, several now illegal drugs might be decriminalized and either sold by the state or sold privately and taxed. Drug policy in the Netherlands might provide a model to emulate and adapt to the American setting. State proceeds from decriminalized drugs would go entirely to drug information, prevention, and treatment programs. Advertisement and places of use for these drugs would be restricted about as much as they now are for tobacco. Indeed, I favor further restrictions in tobacco advertisements aimed at teenagers. Every attempt would be made to gear the expenditures for prevention and treatment to the level of drug income received from specific communities. One side effect of decriminalization would be to reduce pressures to corruption within local police departments. For no illegal drug trade (or prostitution or gambling) flourishes anywhere unless the police are involved. And police corruption is a great danger facing a democratic culture. 1

Third, drugs that are the most highly addictive, mind-destroying, and/or contributive to violence should be illegal. But I am not sure which these are. Suppose we treat alcohol as a benchmark. If it remains legal—and my taste for wine makes me hope it does—then other drugs with similar pleasures and dangers will be...

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