Setting the Tone: "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that…Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they   state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do  justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be  able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and  persuasive form…." From: “On Liberty”, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. XVII:   Essays on Politics and Society.

These brief debate summaries will have the general structure: an intro to the issue, then one or two “Yes” paragraphs, followed by one or two “No” paragraphs. Snark-free comments are welcome. There will be a new debate topic every month.

Debate 1: Should drugs be legalized in the US?

The United States openly declared a war on drugs about 40 years ago. Unfortunately, the war on drugs is not going well. Despite huge sums spent on enforcement of drug laws and incarceration of drug offenders, Americans haven’t lost their taste for a whole smorgasbord of soft and hard drugs. Every year almost half a trillion dollars’ worth of illegal drugs is imported, exported, bought and sold in the US. Heroin use has shot up, claiming four times as many deaths in 2013 as in 2002. Drug violence in the US continues to claim lives: from 2006-2010, 5,700 lives were cut short due to drug-related conflicts. Illegal drug use also leads people to commit crimes. In the US alone, most of those arrested for violent crimes test positive for drugs at time of arrest, as do a substantial number of those arrested for property crimes. And American consumption of illegal drugs fuels violence around the world: in 2013 alone, Mexican drug cartels murdered more than 16,000 people. Finally, let’s not forget that terrorist organizations like ISIS fund many of their operations through the drug trade.

What a mess. All those lives ruined; all that money spent. Surely, there must be a better way.

For some, the better way is clear: legalize drugs. All drugs. Why stop at pot? And why stop at consumption? Legalize cultivation, manufacture, transport, and sales. Of course, there needs to be regulations, like labeling, purity and dose requirements, no sales to minors or near schools, and no driving or operating machinery under the influence. That’s just common sense. Manufacturers and vendors would be licensed and taxed, with tax revenues used for rehabilitation and ways to reduce the harm of drug use, such as the provision of safe houses with supervision by counselors who can monitor for and respond to overdoses as well as provide referrals for help.

Advocates of legalization argue that the fact that drug use can be harmful is not a reason to make such use illegal. After all, many legal goods cause serious harm, including death. This includes alcohol, responsible for about 38,000 overdose deaths in the US every year. However, the criminal status of drugs actually contributes to their harm, by promoting dangerously tainted products and transmission of disease through dirty needles and unhygienic environments. Legalization would also cut the wind out of the sails of drug gangs, cartels and terrorist organizations, who would be less able to rely on the drug trade to fund their nefarious activities. There would be environmental benefits as well: cultivation and manufacturing would have to be in compliance with EPA regulations and there’d be no more aerial spraying of drug crops. What’s not to like?

Lots, say the critics of legalization. Colorado is a good case study of what is likely to happen following legalization: increases in overall drug consumption (including among children and teens), drugged-driving incidents, fatal crashes, emergency room visits, school expulsions, and gang-related crime, not to mention a decrease in workplace productivity and an exploding homeless population. And pot is often associated with rather innocuous behavioral changes – imagine the effect of legalizing harder drugs, especially those associated with violence. Do we really want to legalize rage-inducing methamphetamines?

Just because some harmful activities are legal is not an argument to legalize all harmful activities. Legalization will lead to more drug use and more drug use will mean more damaged brains and bodies, creating a greater burden on our healthcare system and safety net. Greater use will mean more addiction and compromised decision-making, resulting in higher crime rates and destroyed families. None of this is to say that the war on drugs is perfect. There is already a growing consensus that more needs to be spent on rehabilitation, that use alone shouldn’t merit incarceration, and that past drug offenses shouldn’t mean disqualification from student financial aid. We still need to become better at helping people who abuse drugs, but legalization would only make that job harder.

So, what do you think? Would legalization of drugs in the US create more good than harm? Or vice versa?