Nicholas Kristof wants to know: Should the U.S. legalize drugs?
The influential New York Times columnist posted the question, which is being asked in mainstream circles with increasing frequency, on his Facebook page Saturday evening. Opinions have come pouring in.
"I'm thinking of writing this coming week about whether legalization of drugs makes sense. Any thoughts out there or good resources?" he asked.
Kristof told the Huffington Post he likes to reach out to readers for help when he's entering into not-entirely-familiar territory.
"It certainly prompted a lot of interesting thoughts, a lot of references to organizations involved, and one organization also reached out by phone to me. Maybe I would have come across the same organization, or maybe not, but on a topic that I don't know so well it can be a really useful tool," he said. "I find that on some issues it's completely useless, but on topics that especially involve experiences that I don't have, or knowledge that I don't have, then reaching out actually works pretty well."
One topic that doesn't work well with crowd-sourcing, Kristof said is the Middle East. "You get half the people with extreme views on the one side and half the people with extreme views on the other, and it's all heat and no light. And it's all arguments that I've already heard before," he said.
Tom Angell, a flak for the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, left Kristof a message after a friend at Students for Sensible Drug Policy alerted him to the query.
"Facebook and other social networking sites like Digg and Twitter have proven to be an essential tool for those of us working to drive the discussion on drug legalization from the political fringes to the upper echelons of the mainstream media in recent months," he told the Huffington Post in a g-chat.
Angell, if he connects with Kristof, will encounter a receptive audience.
"It's been a gradual process," said Kristof about his thinking leading to the decision to confront the issue. "I think that the economy being a particular mess makes me a little more skeptical about spending vast amounts of money incarcerating people on drugs, and then I think the degree to which Mexico has been erupting also has made me wonder."
Kristof has traveled widely for his reporting and filed stories from a number of war zones. "The Taliban financing itself in part with opium has made me also wonder about the foreign-policy implications of our drug policies. But it's been something I've kind of wondered about and been ambivalent about for a number of years," said Kristof.
Facebookers who responded to Kristof took his question seriously and largely gave nuanced answers, leaning overwhelmingly in favor of a liberalized policy. His Facebook buds suggested he seek out drug-policy experts Mark Kleiman and Lester Grinspoon, along with Glenn Greenwald, who has recently written about Portugal's experience with decriminalization.
"If you do legalize marijuana, simultaneously implement strict, VERY strict drunk and high driving laws as well as gun laws to try to tame the negative externalities of marijuana use. I believe that the only possible drug to legalize would be marijuana, but I'm skeptical that our culture could handle it. Iowa sure as heck isn't Amsterdam," offered Jacqueline Nalbert Brysacz.
Though many of the posters were personally in favor of reforming drug policy, there was skepticism that the nation could handle legalization, much as Brysacz said.
"I favor legalization/decriminalization in theory, but I wonder how a policy shift of such magnitude would play out in the real world, or if it's even possible," wrote Stephen Wittek. "A lot of deeply entrenched interests, opinions, attitudes and beliefs would have to uprooted or steamrolled, and a lot of people would scream bloody apocalypse. Regardless of whether or not it 'makes sense,' the question at the heart of issue is 'Does America have the stomach for legalization?' And I'm pretty sure the answer is 'no.'"
Kristof will be following in the wake of Time's Joe Klein, CNN's Jack Cafferty, MSNBC's Pat Buchanan, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, top House Democrat Barney Frank, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and current Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, all of whom have called for a rational discussion about drug policy that includes legalization.
Look for his column in the next few weeks. And look for something that moves the conversation forward.
"Increasingly, I'm thinking that legalization arguments are stronger and stronger," said Kristof.
By Ryan Grim
June 1, 2009