Fight Cigarettes But Legalize Drugs?

A prediction: The day will someday arrive when a man who dares to light up a cigarette on an American street corner will be hauled off to jail, that is if he isn't first set upon and stoned to death by a mob outraged at the effrontery. And the police, in so hauling, or the mob, in so stoning, will scarcely bother to notice the other man on the same street corner, the one who is injecting himself with a syringe full of heroin.

Consider the opposite trajectories in public sentiment as it pertains to cigarettes and drugs. Cigarette smokers are being banished from an ever-growing list of indoor spaces, even to include, in some cities, one's own home should his neighbor be discomfited by the slightest trace of tobacco smoke wafting in from next door. And cigarettes are unwelcome at some outdoor sports arenas and even in the wide open spaces of beaches and public parks, no matter how remote the smoker may be from others.

Even as this national ethos is building against cigarettes, even as the smokers themselves are being corralled into ever-shrinking enclaves (the better for others to scorn them), one sees a paradoxical but growing cry for the legalization of drugs, a recent manifestation of which was a July 5 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled "This Is the U.S. on Drugs." Co-written by Los Angeles attorney David W. Fleming and Orange County judge David Gray, the piece laments the failure of the "so-called war on drugs," which, the authors say, has only served to enrich those who produce and sell drugs while failing to reduce their consumption.

Neither Fleming nor Gray can be dismissed as some kind of loose-living libertine, and indeed both have solid establishment credentials. Fleming is an attorney with the white shoe law firm of Latham & Watkins and boasts a long record of civic and charitable involvement. Gray was appointed to the bench in 1983 by a Republican, then-Governor George Deukmejian, and in 1994 he was the Libertarian Party's candidate for the Senate. (Alas, he only came up 6.2 million votes shy of defeating Barbara Boxer.)

Fleming and Gray join a long list of establishment types who have come out for some form of drug legalization, and like many of them they argue their case from a libertarian point of view. "The mission of the criminal justice system should always be to protect us from one another and not from ourselves," they write. "That means that drug users who drive a motor vehicle or commit other crimes while under the influence of these drugs would continue to be held criminally responsible for their actions, with strict penalties. But that said, the system should not be used to protect us from ourselves."

Such thinking is today gaining currency, and to those with an open mind on the matter Fleming and Gray's arguments may indeed be persuasive. But it's interesting to note that even Fleming and Gray propose replacing the large and unwieldy government apparatus which today fights the war on drugs with an arguably larger and more unwieldy one that would regulate and tax the use of those same drugs. "We could generate billions of dollars by taxing the stuff," they say, "just as we do with tobacco and alcohol."

And how would they spend those billions of dollars, you ask. In the treatment of drug addiction, of course.