In 1986 Len Bias, a promising young basketball player, died suddenly in his room at the University of Maryland. He had recently consumed huge amounts of both alcohol and powdered cocaine. Coming at a time when the news media were hyping the dangers of smokable cocaine, which was said to be instantly addicting and frequently deadly, the event helped push the war on drugs to unprecedented levels of hysteria and ferocity.
In 1993 River Phoenix, a promising young actor, collapsed outside a Los Angeles nightclub and died shortly thereafter. Toxicological tests found that Phoenix, a strict vegetarian known for his "clean living," had consumed a lethal mix of drugs, including cocaine and (probably) heroin. Phoenix's death received prominent coverage for a while. There were a few stories lamenting the loss, a few more about drug use among twenty-somethings in L.A.'s fashionable hangouts. But not many people were prepared to conclude from the actor's recklessness that "it could happen to anybody," that the nation was at risk, or that desperate measures were necessary.
The contrast between the reaction to Len Bias's death and the reaction to River Phoenix's death is one of many signs that Americans are less obsessed with illegal drugs than they were in the late 1980s. Largely as a result of the change in public opinion, we haven't heard much lately on this topic from bombastic drug warriors such as William Bennett (almost always referred to now as the "former secretary of education") or Charles Rangel (whose Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control no longer exists). This does not mean the prohibitionists are silent. But now that the shouting has died down, we have a better opportunity to hear the calm, rational voices of serious scholars who support prohibition.
One such scholar is sociologist James A. Inciardi, director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies at the University of Delaware. He strongly opposes legalization, but he has shown a willingness to take the idea seriously. He edited the 1991 book The Drug Legalization Debate, and now he appears in Legalize It?: Debating American Drug Policy. At one point, criticizing a misleading historical summary, Inciardi says, "I just hate gross misstatements and overgeneralizations," a sentiment that distinguishes him from most of the drug warriors who have managed to grab public attention in recent years.
The intellectual rigor of prohibitionists like Inciardi is both an opportunity and a challenge for reformers. On the one hand, it allows them to cut through the nonsense and get down to the real issues. On the other hand, they'd better be ready, because they can't dismiss Inciardi as easily as Ed Meese or Joe Biden.
Arnold S. Trebach, a professor at The American University and president of the Drug Policy Foundation, is certainly up to the task. He ably makes the case for legalization in about 125 pages, touching on all the major arguments. Inciardi is familiar with these arguments, and he addresses some of them in his section of the book. But the exchange suffers from the fact...