On Legalizing Drugs … With William F. Buckley

Guest: William F. Buckley, Jr.
Title: “On Legalizing Drugs…with William F. Buckley, Jr.”
VTR: 8/6/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I begin to fear that perhaps I haven’t taken seriously enough the venerable injunction I so often quote here: “Have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” For on today’s subject, and faced with a guest whose brilliance and erudition I so much respect, but whose position on our subject I cannot easily embrace, I find myself not just open-minded, but, I fear, quite incapable of making up my mind.

William F. Buckley, Jr. has been called the guru, the patron saint of American conservatives, which has made it particularly hard for some of us to identify him with the call for decriminalization or legalization of drugs. Supposedly, that’s a radical cause, better left than right. Yet Buckley is, astonishingly enough, joined with Milton Friedman, George Schultz, and other leaders of his conservative establishment in calling for drug legalization. Indeed, Mr. Buckley has devoted column after column in his National Review to this crusade, particularly the now-famous February 12, 1996 issue titled “The War on Drugs is Lost.” Now, in May, a Mr. Glen H. Early wrote me from Oxford, Wisconsin about this National Review offering. He wrote, “I pray you will find this topic interesting, and possibly express your opinions.” But the fact is that I haven’t made up my own mind on this topic, and would instead ask my guest once again to précis for us his case for drug legalization, his response to A.M. Rosenthal’s insistence that “Those who would legalize drugs play the cruelest hoax,” and perhaps his response to my own gut feeling that the very last thing Americans need at the dawn of the 21st century is what may so easily be taken as a further sanction for mindlessness and escape from reality.

Mr. Buckley, convince me, please.

BUCKLEY: Well, you began by saying you wouldn’t easily embrace my position. I don’t mind if you embrace my position after some effort.


BUCKLEY: So you want the effort.

HEFFNER: Correct.

BUCKLEY: First of all, please don’t mistake my position for that of people who are indifferent to drugs. I’m not indifferent to drugs. I think I’ve been quoted as saying if I could turn a single latch which would make all the drugs disappear from the face of the earth, with the exception of here and there, a vineyard in Bordeaux, I would turn that latch. Now, you say is it inconsistent for a conservative to take my position? I don’t think it is, because a conservative seeks to be grounded in reality. That which works is quantifiable; that which simply does not work, isn’t. If you were to pass a law requiring people to go to church on Sunday, it wouldn’t work. Under the circumstances, you would eventually simply withdraw such a law. My position on drugs is that they are, the drug laws aren’t working, and that more damage net is being done by their continuation on the books than would be done by withdrawing them from the books. This, as I say, should not be confused as a sanction for drugs. Drugs are a form of escapism, and the damage in taking them is not by any means self-limited. It damages other people also. For that reason, the question is: How do you diminish the net harm done by drugs?

How are you coming on my campaign?

HEFFNER: I’m following you. I’m following you.

BUCKLEY: Well, suppose one were to ask the following question: How do you measure the net damage done by the existing situation? Well, you begin by people who take drugs, their damage. Then you add to that the number of people who are engaged in trying to prevent them from doing that. 5:00

BUCKLEY: That’s 400,000 policemen. Then you add whatever dollar measurement you wish to attach to derivative losses in liberty and security. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who can’t safely cross the park at night because they would likely run into a drug marauder, have lost something tangible. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who need to lock up at night, have lost something tangible. To the extent that you can talk about cities being imperiled, they are imperiled by what? By people who need either to sustain their own habit or who wish to profiteer from the weaknesses of others who have that habit, which means that they are robbing or stealing approximately 100 times the pharmaceutical cost of that drug. Now, I’ve seen varying estimates of what that cost figure is. I’ve never seen one that’s less than $500 billion. And we’re spending $125 or $130 billion in our war on drugs. I would infinitely prefer to reduce that net loss to the cost of looking after people who have the habit and who need care, which would take us down to $20-30 billion a year, and have the relative liberty that would flow from a situation which half of America isn’t constipated by worrying about drug-takers and by drug-sellers, and by people who rob and steal in order to profiteer from the situation.

HEFFNER: Well, now, in a recent issue of National Review, you summed up some of the responses from your readers, those who read the February issue. One of the questions that occurred — and it seemed to me it is a basic question — is to put to you whether this isn’t, in a very real sense, a moral question, the answer to which cannot then be given in terms of billions or hundreds of millions or trillions of dollars, and that you, yourself, would be the first person to indicate that.

BUCKLEY: No, because the moral stigma continues, in my judgment, to attach to it. Anybody who becomes an alcoholic, which is probably the primary curse of this country, in my judgment, is morally stigmatized by permitting himself to get into that condition. That is not an argument for prohibition. Adultery is widely practiced. So is fornication. You can simultaneously say it’s morally wrong, but we’re not going to tell the police to open the doors of every motel to find out whether the people inside have marriage licenses.

HEFFNER: But in this instance we have to say to our youngsters, “This was against public policy up until 1996.” You would have it that way. 1997. It is not. It’s a strange message.

BUCKLEY: Well, it’s a message that we undertook to say in 1933.

HEFFNER: With the end of prohibition.

BUCKLEY: That’s right. And it’s a message that, in my judgment, we are perfectly capable of taking when things didn’t work out. We pulled out of Vietnam, and we pulled away from prohibition. We pulled away from a number of compulsory blue laws, all of them in the last few years, by the way. This doesn’t mean that you encourage a defiance of the commandment that you shall keep holy the Sabbath. It simply means that it doesn’t become church business, state business.

HEFFNER: But it still seems so strange to me that…

BUCKLEY: I’m not saying it doesn’t seem strange to you.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying…

BUCKLEY: But I don’t mind developing a policy that seems strange to you if the result of it is going to make a society improved over how that society currently

operates. HEFFNER: Now, may I ask you a question?


HEFFNER: What’s the downside, as Buckley sees it?

BUCKLEY: Well, the downside is that almost inevitably you will find X number of people — I don’t know how many they are, and there are disputes about this — X number of people who say, “Now that I can actually walk into a federal drug store and buy it, I’ll go ahead and do so.” Now, this is widely reflected on. How many people in that category are there? 10:00

BUCKLEY: The ACLU, at least Ira Glasser, who is the head of it, he doesn’t think there would necessarily be any increase in drug-taking. His point is that the fact that it is illegal adds a certain allure to it that will all of a sudden dissipate if it weren’t illegal. A second school of thought says, “okay, they will try it, but having tried it, having had their experience, they will withdraw from it.” Ninety-eight — I want to get the figures anyway — 98 billion people in the United States have experimented with illegal drugs.

HEFFNER: Million.

BUCKLEY: Million. Sorry. Three-and-a-half million are current addicts as defined by, “Did you take one in the last 30 days.” Now, if you say, well, 95 million can pull out of it, having done it in school, in college, or whenever, there’s no reason why you can’t project that experience in the future by the number of people who, “Okay, it’s legal, I’ll try it,” and then do it once. Now it’s very dangerous to do. I would certainly caution against it. But all that money that’s currently spent on constraint could be spent on education. And, by the way, there’s no reason not to encourage social sanctions against it, i.e., if you come to work for Mr. Heffner, you can’t take drugs. And if you don’t consent to have an occasional drug test, extemporaneously scheduled, then don’t apply for a job. I’m all in favor of social sanctions for use; it’s the legal sanction that I think is killing us.

HEFFNER: Now, as a prime debater, would you say that that was a very good summary of the downside? Seriously.

BUCKLEY: Well, I don’t think what other downside there is.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s ask the question about saying to our young people, “Yes, this is tough. We haven’t been able to make it, as yet. And it’s so tough and it’s so costly, let’s abandon the effort.” For some reason, I see that as a quite incredible downside. Because you’re not embracing drugs, as you’ve said. You wanted to make that perfectly clear. You’re saying it’s too damned tough to achieve.

BUCKLEY: Well, I would offhand guess that the majority of young people would be encouraged by a finding of that character, because it would tell them they’re adults living in the real world. Let me remind you, Mr. Heffner, that the opposition, the illegality of drugs, does not actually affect the quantity of their consumption. As one person put it to me only last Fall, it’s easier to buy marijuana in Cambridge than it is beer. Why? Because if somebody sells you illegal beer, he forfeits his license, and his license might have cost $200,000, his whole plot. Whereas people who peddle marijuana can do so furtively with no overhead. I don’t think anybody would maintain that if you want drugs you can’t find them. The very fact that they’re imported and consumed in such quantities simply defies that assertion.

HEFFNER: If you become the drug czar somewhere along the past 10-20 years, do you think you could have been more effective in solving our problem?

BUCKLEY: It depends on my authority. Obviously, if I was a drug czar…

HEFFNER: Total authority.

BUCKLEY: Total authority? Plenipotentiary?

HEFFNER: Yes, you are the drug czar.

BUCKLEY: Okay, if I were the drug czar, I would say, “Okay, here are the five or six popular, illegal drugs. You can get them at the federal drug store for just more than the pharmaceutical cost of producing them. Enough to sustain the overhead, but enough also to discourage a black market in them. But before you go in there you’re going to have to read a description of what this drug does to you. And if you’re in a mood to play Russian roulette, go ahead and take some crack cocaine, because the probability that you will be seriously affected by this is up around eight, ten percent.” So therefore I would give them all the warning that they needed about the toxicity that they were able to accept in indulging this habit, but I would not let the price rise to where Mr. Middleman decides that he’s going to sell you that crack cocaine, and in order to get it he’s going to fumble around in people’s living rooms or steal women’s purses or mug people.


HEFFNER: Now, you were in the Army. You remember those horrendous films. What you’re going to do if you pick up syphilis when you go into town. And you know that the AIDS horror pictures, the horror information, has been about as effective as those old Army films, not terribly, terribly much more. Do you really feel that accompanying warning would be effective?

BUCKLEY: Well, first of all, let me distinguish between the two, because AIDS and syphilis are the result of passions that become ungovernable. Lust or love causes people to do things that they wouldn’t do in premeditation. “Deliver us from temptation,” says the Lord’s Prayer, i.e., deliver you from that third drink if you have alcoholic tendencies and are going to want the tenth drink. By the same token, people who give in to unsafe sex practices are “carried away.” But this would not apply to a relatively clinical decision to buy crack cocaine, because people wouldn’t buy it when they were stoned. That’s not the way drugs work. You have your trip and then you’re over it. Then you reflect and decide whether or not to go again. So there is that distinction.

A second distinction is that there is no way ever to protect people categorically from the results of their own unruly appetites. This is obviously true of sex. It’s obviously true in alcohol. And it should be obviously true in respect of drugs. This doesn’t mean that equivalent laws to what we now have in drugs should apply to alcohol or to sex.

HEFFNER: You know, just six months before your now famous, notorious (however you want to identify it) National Review issue in February ‘96, in August ‘95, you wrote this piece in National Review, “Jerry Garcia, Rest in Peace.” As I read this now, I wonder, how could the man who wrote this have gone on six months later and recommended, reluctantly perhaps, legalization.

BUCKLEY: Can you remind me of the contradictions?

HEFFNER: Yes, because you’re saying that Garcia led, you indicate that he led a young person who had worked in your office, participated in leading him down the garden path. And your implication here is, it seems to me, that there were something unusual accounted for the young Americans, pictures of them reproduced in the days just gone by, exhibiting Dionysic pleasures in their role as Deadheads, exuberance finds its forms throughout the world and concentrates its energies on the young. But is the joy unconfined? Ought it to be? And you see him, when you write that he had predicted only a week after leaving the Betty Ford Center, he had said two years ago that he really needed to do something to restore his health, otherwise he would be dead, like, two years from now. “He went on schedule,” you wrote, “and is said to have died with a smile on his face, no doubt because he was a happy man, but also because he made so many others happy. But he also killed, if that’s the right word, for such as our intern, a lot of people. And although he had a pulsating forum worldwide for 30 years and knew from his own experience what his habits were doing to him, he never went public on it. Not really.”

I know that my raising this point of what you wrote in August ‘95 doesn’t diminish one bit the suffering that you indicate our nation had experienced, which led you to your quest for legalization. But it’s not as simple as government drug shops. Is it, really? I mean, do you see it in this…


BUCKLEY: Well, I didn’t say that it was simple; I said that’s a way of defeating the black market. The cost of drugs is between one and two percent, the pharmaceutical cost, of what you have to pay the man on the street corner. But the way Garcia figures in this is that he encouraged a kind of detachment from reality that led a lot of people, like my young friend, to simply suspend his natural or even his cultivated sense of morality and self-restraint. In the same sense that a great courtesan might encourage people to lose restraints. Jerry Garcia encouraged to lose restraints. The guy who just died, who was famous for saying, “Turn loose and…” What was the rest of that phrase? “Tune out.”


BUCKLEY: Garcia gave that message. And I was reproving him for doing that. I think it’s impossible to detach that from the memory of Garcia.

HEFFNER: And you think that we can separate that message out from now, now saying to youngsters, “We have legalized.” I’m not talking about the beginnings of national policy.

BUCKLEY: Well, I would certainly discourage anybody from trying to advertise the beauties of drugs. It would be no worse than saying, “Patronize this federal drug store and see what a thrill you get out of cocaine.”

HEFFNER: Should we limit…

BUCKLEY: As things now stand, we’re not permitted to advertise cigarettes on television, so we certainly wouldn’t have any First Amendment problems in cranking up a program against advertising drugs.

HEFFNER: No, but we haven’t as yet said, “You may not advertise tobacco and nicotine.” We’ve talked about a special area: broadcasting. We haven’t done that yet.

BUCKLEY: Well, that’s because of the tobacco lobbies. But if you chose not to do that, the question “Would it survive the First Amendment test?” I think it probably would. I certainly have no doubt that a prohibition against advertising cocaine would survive the First Amendment. If not, we’ll change the First Amendment.

HEFFNER: All right. Let me ask you this question: What do you think is going to happen?

BUCKLEY: I think we need… I’m sorry to trouble you. [Coughing]

HEFFNER: Do you have enough water there?

BUCKLEY: We need to await the day when a politician with national prestige says, “Look, this hasn’t worked.” Now, I don’t predict that day’s around the corner, but I think there is an increasing natural sense that it hasn’t worked. We got an awful lot of mail after that issue went out; 450 letters is a lot of mail for general opinion. And only four or five percent said, “You shouldn’t have even brought the subject up.” Although a half were opposed to the conclusions we arrived at, 100 percent were glad that we ventilated the controversy. So I think there’s a lot of latent feeling out there, and I would like to see the politician who just risks a forward position on it. Mayor Shmoke of Baltimore is the closest, and he was re-elected quite thunderously, notwithstanding that he had said it just before his last election. So I think that there will be a distillation of sentiments that are already empirically widely felt.

HEFFNER: Now, if you were in my position, what would you say to Buckley about the potential for damage in this position?

BUCKLEY: I’d say, “I surrender.”

HEFFNER: No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. Not if you were in my position. [Laughter]

BUCKLEY: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I asked you about downside before. Now, in a sense, a similar question. What damage do you see that National Review is doing to the war against drugs, which you diminish?

BUCKLEY: Oh, we can hardly damage the war against drugs, because the war against drugs is futile.

HEFFNER: It’s been so ineffective. [Laughter]


BUCKLEY: There’s no way in which our piece encourages anybody to seek out illegal drugs. The big question before the House in an ideal situation is: To what extent are you willing to employ social sanctions? Now, Nicholas Van Hoffman listed 15 things that — he’s in favor of legalization — 15 things that he would do to anybody who was caught taking drugs or couldn’t prove he hadn’t taken drugs. They are really quite draconian: fire them, take away their driver’s license, everything except tattoo them. I think he goes a little bit too far. But he opens up a very interesting window, i.e., what kind of social sanctions have not been harnessed that might be harnessed to discourage experimentation with drugs.

HEFFNER: We’re going to do a second program. Let’s talk about them, because my signal is we’re out of time.


HEFFNER: Thank you, William Buckley, for joining me today.

BUCKLEY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Comments can be sent to this address, or via e-mail to: openmindtv@aol.com

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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