Arguing With Myself

One of the things that makes this argument assignment I’m doing so interesting is it is an opportunity for students to see both sides of an issue, and in many cases, both sides have been argued rationally, cogently, convincingly. They’re able to see that there are in fact two generally reasonable sides to most truly controversial issues, and that, while they may definitely agree with one side only, they should also understand that the other side is not insane, not absurd: they just have a different opinion.

In several cases, I have been able to argue against my own opinion; my students also see that it isn’t easy to do, but that it can be done well.

Here is my latest: one of my students argued very well for the legalization of all drugs; a stance I agree with, for several reasons. But he took my side: so I had to argue the other. His title, by the way, was “Do All the Drugs.”



“Do all the drugs,” he says. It’s a joke, of course. We all know it’s a joke.

But drugs aren’t a joke.

Look: I kid around about them, too. I talk about the Devil’s lettuce, and Scarface’s mountain of cocaine, and being drunk. I watched Breaking Bad. Good show. It’s fiction, though.  

The truth is my grandmother. My grandmother was an alcoholic. My father used to come home from middle school and find his mother passed out on the living room floor; he would have to clean her up before his siblings got home, so they wouldn’t see their mother that way. My Catholic grandfather divorced her, in the 1950’s, despite the stigma attached to that, because she was too destructive to live with. I never met my grandmother, because before I was born, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her own neck. She was drunk.

The truth is that I have lost my other three grandparents, my mother’s father before I ever met him, all because of tobacco: both my grandfathers smoked, and my mother’s father died of a stroke before I was born. His wife and my paternal grandfather both died of tobacco-related lung cancer. I picked up a cigarette when I was sixteen (because I was drunk, and hanging out with friends who smoked), and within six months of that idle, thoughtless experiment, I was smoking a pack a day. I kept that habit, through thick and thin, for the next nineteen years; and I have no doubt that this will eventually be the cause of my death. I just hope I live to my eighties, like my dad’s dad, rather than dying in my sixties like my mom’s dad.

And that’s just tobacco and alcohol: the legal drugs. We know the problems with the legal drugs. We don’t really see the problems with the illegal drugs. Take marijuana, for instance. It is common knowledge that nobody dies of a marijuana overdose. And that’s a good thing, of course. The CDC reported that about 2,200 people died in the U.S. in 2012 from an overdose of alcohol. We wouldn’t have to worry about that with marijuana, which is wonderful.

Except 88,000 people die every year in the U.S. alone from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health. Almost 10,000 people die every year in alcohol related car crashes — 9,967 in 2014 ( Five times as many as the number who died from overdose. There are more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions that alcohol contributes to. The World Health Organization estimated that 139 million life years were lost to alcohol-related conditions and incidents. 139,000,000 years. 3.3 million deaths, worldwide, in 2012. Alcohol misuse is the number one risk factor in premature death and disability among people aged 15-49. It is responsible for one-fourth of the total deaths age 20-39. (

And alcohol can’t compare to what tobacco can do. Cigarette smoking causes 480,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. ( 6 million deaths per year globally. That will increase to 8 million deaths worldwide. Every year.

Why am I talking so much about alcohol and tobacco, instead of methamphetamine and heroin and crack?

Because tobacco and alcohol are legal. Which means they are easier to get. Easier to use. Cheaper. More acceptable. And you can see the results.

Nearly 21 million Americans ages 12 and older had a substance use problem in 2015, according to a new federal estimate.

Among those with a substance use disorder, three out of four people (or about 15.7 million) had a substance use disorder related to alcohol, Kana Enomoto, the principal deputy administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said at a news conference today (Sept. 8).

In addition, 1 in 3 people with a substance use disorder had a disorder related to drug use, and 1 in 8 people had a disorder involving both drugs and alcohol, Enomoto said.

Three-fourths of the substance abuse problems in this country are related to alcohol. Just imagine what would happen if marijuana,and crack, and heroin, and meth were as easy to get as a beer. Look at prescription drugs compared to heroin:

Among those who reported using opioids in the past year, prescription drugs were the most common type used, Enomoto said. An estimated 3.8 million people in the U.S. currently misuse prescription pain relievers, according to the report.

An estimated 830,000 people in the U.S. used heroin in 2015, Enomoto said — more than double the number from 2002. She noted that there was a slight decrease, however, in heroin use from 2014 to 2015, but it was not statistically significant (meaning it could have been due to chance).

Almost five times  as many people misused legal prescription drugs as used heroin. But heroin is cheaper and easier to produce than Oxycontin or Percocet or fentanyl. That’s why the heroin use rate has doubled in the last fifteen years: because people get addicted to legal pain relievers, and then find that heroin is cheaper. And can be bought without a prescription. If we legalize everything, would someone need a prescription to buy heroin? Or would it be even easier to get than it is now, when it is illegal? So what if heroin was legal, and available on the street corner —  inside the Walgreens? Or the Walmart? Or the McDonald’s?

What if the numbers equalized? What if as many people developed drug abuse problems as have alcohol abuse problems? What would happen to this country, to this world, if we had three times the current number of drug addicts? Five times as many heroin addicts? Right now, while they’re illegal and dangerous and hard to get, look at how many overdose deaths there are from drugs:

National Overdose Deaths—Number of Deaths from All Drugs.



See how that rate is going up? That’s because of the legal opioid epidemic. Legal drugs cause overdoses, and lead to illegal drug use that causes even more overdoses. More than 50,000 overdoses in 2015. Alcohol, which has a much lower rate of overdose, has a much higher rate of abuse — three times as  high. What if all of those drugs were legal?

It’s another common argument around this issue to say that people use drugs more when they are illegal, because they enjoy the thrill. It is also common to argue that banning drugs has no effect; just look at Prohibition, which surely didn’t work. And yet, when Colorado made marijuana legal, somehow they managed to earn more than $1 billion in sales. A cannabis industry research firm, ArcView, estimated that legal marijuana sales could top $20 billion by 2020. ( Are those all people who bought all of their drugs illegally until this year? No: the global estimate for profit from illegal sales of marijuana is $75 billion ( Unless a sizeable percentage of those drug users all live in Colorado, then the increase is coming from new users.

Of course it is: ease of access is one of the primary contributors to drug use and addiction. Why do rehabs cut people off from their regular lives, take them from their homes and their social circles? In order to remove the temptation. To limit the access. Another factor is the stigma: if an act is illegal, it sends a strong message that that act is wrong; most people believe that our laws make sense and are correct, and most people therefore obey them. That’s why alcohol abuse is three times as common as drug abuse, because alcohol consumption is more socially acceptable than drug consumption. For every Snoop Dogg, after all, there are thousands upon thousands of people who drink wine with dinner, every night.

What will happen if we make drugs legal? What costs will offset that greater profit that Colorado has seen? The CDC estimates that 16% of all motor vehicle accidents involve drugs other than alcohol. There are 121 million self-reported incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol every year, because we don’t see driving under the influence of alcohol as a serious issue — not if it’s only a little alcohol.

What if it’s a little meth? A little LSD? A little heroin?

One of the most frightening experiences of my life was when one of my best friends dropped acid in high school and hung out at my house. He had a bad trip: and I watched my friend lose his mind. He spent two hours ranting, screaming, throwing things, breaking things; he put his fist through a window. He punched me in the face, kicked me in the groin. He was bleeding; I was bleeding: and he had no idea. No idea what he was doing, or why. They took him away in an ambulance, handcuffed to a gurney, screaming obscenities at us.  He didn’t know where he was, or who he was, until the next day.

And that’s just acid. One of the former students at the school where I taught in Oregon, who became a meth user after high school, committed first-degree murder. She and two other addicts were trying to steal enough money to buy more meth, and they killed their victim. Imagine if that was someone you knew: turned into a murderer by drugs.

Now: all of this is not to say that the way we deal with drugs in this country right now is the right way. The incarceration rate for non-violent drug offenders is obscene. But that doesn’t mean that we should solve that problem by making drugs legal and therefore more prevalent: it means we need to reconsider our incarceration system. Drug users should be in treatment, not prison; but we can only mandate treatment if drugs are illegal — otherwise it is only voluntary. And look how many alcoholics give up their addiction voluntarily, how many cigarette smokers. Drug dealers, at least the minor ones, should be rehabilitated, given an opportunity to find new ways to make a living that don’t involve ruining other people’s lives. Far too many people turn to selling drugs because there is literally no other way for them to earn money for food and rent; but that is not because drugs are illegal, it is because our economy has deep flaws, and we need to deal with the systemic problems in inner cities.

You don’t do that by giving those people weed. Not even if it’s legal weed. The very suggestion is absurd.


I could go on, but I don’t need to. This argument  just becomes repetition. Look up any serious consequence that comes from alcohol abuse, and then look for similar consequences for drug abuse, and you will find that the drugs’ effects are the same, or even worse. The only reason people keep talking about overdose when they talk about marijuana is because it is the one factor that doesn’t apply; this is why nobody talks about impaired driving, an area in which marijuana is certainly not innocent. The idea that marijuana is non-addictive is based on evidence as flimsy as the argument that Prohibition didn’t work: people who use marijuana tend to keep using it, even after serious consequences like memory loss start to show up; what is that if not addiction? Just because someone doesn’t go through physical withdrawal doesn’t mean they aren’t addicted: what would happen if all of you tried to give up your phones? Prohibition unquestionably reduced alcohol consumption, even after it was repealed,to less than half the level of consumption before Prohibition. It wasn’t Prohibition that led to its own repeal, wasn’t the unquenchable thirst of the nation: it was the Great Depression. Prohibition ended an industry,  and a profitable one, as well as taking away a potential comfort for people whose lives were ruined by the state of the nation; that’s why people brought the booze back. They were desperate. They weren’t thinking clearly.

We should not make the same mistake.

There are problems in this country related to the war on drugs. But that means we should change the way we fight; not surrender and hand the nation over to drug abuse. The simple truth is that drugs, without exception, make you stupid, and then they make you dead; and in the meantime, they do unmeasurable damage economically, physically, emotionally, mentally, to the users and everyone around them. Even with most drugs still illegal, the costs are almost unbelievable:

Beyond the negative consequences for the individual that drug abuse and addiction can have for individuals, there is also a significant impact on society at large. Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually. This includes approximately $193 billion for illicit drugs, $193 billion for tobacco, and $235 billion for alcohol. As staggering as these numbers are, they do not fully describe the breadth of destructive public health and safety implications of drug abuse and addiction, such as family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, and child abuse (


But I don’t need to tell you that, not all of you. The NIAAA estimates that one in ten minors live with at least one parent with alcohol problems. Count the people in the room.

Do you really think the answer is more drugs?

Neither do I.


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