Two of the nation’s top minds in drug policy met to debate the question, “Is drug legalization the answer to America’s drug problem?” as part of the K-State Economics Club’s annual debate Monday evening in Regnier Hall.
Kevin Sabet, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama on drug policy, and Trevor Burrus, managing editor for the Cato Supreme Court Review, debated on topics of legalization, incarceration, racism and classism.
Burrus argued that the government should not have jurisdiction over what individuals choose to put into their bodies. Furthermore, Burrus said policies against potentially harmful substances are unjust, pointing out a perceived hypocrisy in society’s allowance of alcohol, soda and cigarettes.
In particular, Burrus questioned the audience as to what drawbacks illegal drugs have versus their potential benefits.
“What do we weigh them against?” Burrus said. “The fundamental reason drugs should be legal and the fundamental benefit of drugs is that they make you feel good and you like them. When we do a bunch of public health calculations, this is what is usually left out of the benefit.”
Furthering his point, Burrus said the origins of many of the country’s drug policies have discriminatory origins, having originally been used to punish marginalized groups such as black citizens and hippies in the 1960s.
Countering Burrus’s laissez-faire attitude toward drug policy, Sabet said recent shifts toward wider drug legalization have come too quickly and that legislators — as well as the public at large — need to slow down to consider consequences of the shifts.
Sabet noted that Burrus was consistent in arguing for the legalization of most drugs, instead of just a few, like marijuana. Sabet said that it is difficult to argue that marijuana should be legislated at the state level without doing the same for all drugs.
“In this debate, I think there is a false dichotomy being presented that we have two choices in drug policy: we could legalize… or we can incarcerate and criminalize,” Sabet said.
Popular statistics claiming huge amounts of citizens behind bars for drug-related crimes are misleading, Sabet said, as many of those citizens have various other non-drug-related charges as well. Sabet said that the main driver of the United States’ high incarceration rate is due to long sentences for violent crime.
Additionally, the high social costs of drug usage outweigh any “fun” that drugs may otherwise offer, and the arrest and death rates from legal drugs such as alcohol are proof that society pays a steep price for drug usage, Sabet said, although he said he was not necessarily in favor of making alcohol illegal.
“Alcohol is not legal because it’s good for you,” Sabet said. “Alcohol is not legal because it’s great for society. For every dollar in alcohol tax, society pays $10 to $15 in social costs.”
Haley Harrison, senior in economics and mathematics and Economics Club president, said events such as the debate allow students to connects economic concepts to current issues. After hearing the speakers, Harrison said she had a different perspective on drug policies.
“At first, I was kind of a free market kind of person,” Harrison said. “But I agree that there are some harms that we have to think about before completely legalizing something.”
Daniel Kuester, economics professor and club adviser, said the club has been able to host such high profile speakers due to the support of the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, which he said he hopes will help students gain economics experience with real-world issues.
“This is the highlight of our year,” Kuester said. “I feel like it was a home run, and it’s great to be able to bring people to talk about serious economic issues to the student body.”
After the debate, the club hosted a reception at Wahoo Fire and Ice Grill.
“I look forward to — after the debate — going to the state-sanctioned drug dealers,” Burrus said jokingly, referring to the bar.