One said the legalization of illegal drugs would be a “social catastrophe”, the other said such a move would reduce “death, disease and crime.”
Asa Hutchinson, administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Republican Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico debated the war on drugs in front of about 150 people Thursday in the Law School auditorium.
“[The war on drugs is] the biggest head-in-the-sand issue that is with us today,” Johnson said.
He said the anti-drug message of the U.S. government was not having any effect, with over 80 million Americans having used illegal drugs. Johnson also mentioned the Netherlands, saying the legalization of marijuana there has reduced drug use.
“Drug prohibition is what is killing us, not drug use,” Johnson said. “We can do better in this area of drug reform.”
But Hutchinson said an “entrenched social problem” like drugs does not allow a quick solution.
Hutchinson said the drug culture endangers American democracy and erodes Western social values, and added that the state has a responsibility to enforce laws and respond to guidance offered by the scientific and medical community. He said it is necessary to reduce the number of people addicted to drugs and the number of young people who choose to live a drug-influenced lifestyle.
“In a time of national catastrophe, a nation’s values are clarified,” Hutchinson said. “In the 80’s, we reduced the drug use level. The problem is that since 1992, it has [reached a] plateau. My hope is that your generation will lead the way away from drug dependency.”
The crowd, which included students from Yale as well as institutions like Princeton and Wesleyan, cheered more loudly for Johnson during the debate.
“Everyone thinks that the drugs policy has failed,” said Christopher Clark, a student from Wesleyan . “The state keeps pouring money into it but it has failed. In fact, it is doing more harm. It’s a dead political issue.”
A minority of the crowd sided with Hutchinson in what turned out to be a heated debate. Others were unsure.
“It’s hard for me to separate the Governor’s drug and social welfare policies,” said Chamiza Atencio-Pacheco LAW ’03, a native of New Mexico. “I disagree with his social welfare policies, but I agree with his stance on the drugs war.”
Barbara Fair of New Haven-based People Against Injustice aligned herself with Johnson.
“Governor Johnson deserves praise for his bold truth-telling about the failed and corrupt war on drugs,” Fair said. “We who study drug policy wish that more politicians will come out and acknowledge what the public is quickly realizing: this war on drugs is harmful to America, and prison is simply not the appropriate response to drug use.”
Hutchinson said New Haven provides good examples of some successes in the war on drugs. He attributed a decrease in gang violence to the work of the New Haven Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies.
“We have improved the life of this community,” Hutchinson said.
Organizers planned for citizens from around the state to gather at a rally to support Johnson and condemn the Drug Enforcement Administration for its recent attacks on medical marijuana clinics in California and Oregon. But only a handful of students were present before and after the debate for the rally.
The Yale Law School Federalist Society organized the debate, and groups including Yale’s Student Legal Action Movement organized the rally.