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Information for Activists

Persuasive Strategies

by Clifford A. Schaffer


The issue is prison.

The issue is not legalization or decriminalization because we really do not know if we will ever do those things, or anything like them. The issue is prison. The issue is how many millions of people will have to go to prison before this policy is successful.

You cannot successfully defend decriminalization or legalization to most people at this point, because it is not here and they cannot see it. Turn the issue around on them, and make them defend what we are doing now. The drug war has not worked and there is not a drug law enforcement official in the United States who pretends that it can work. Once they are on the defensive, it is easy to get them to admit that it is time to look for another approach -- whatever that approach might be.

Do your homework.

There is enough information in the references I have listed to sink anyone who supports the use of jails for drugs. That's why the reports were written.

Be reasonable.

If you can present a sound and reasonable approach to solving the drug problem, and maintain that stance, you will short-circuit most of the negative emotions and hostility which may be raised against you. Notice that I have said a reasonable "approach" to solving the drug problem, not a reasonable "solution" to the drug problem. By approach, I mean a method of finding a solution. Do not try to present a solution because, as discussed later, that only gets you into trouble. Instead, promote a fair and reasonable method of finding a solution -- such as the objective commission called for by the Hoover Resolution.

At the same time, this reasonable stance forces our opponents to either be reasonable and follow us toward reform, or adopt ever more extreme positions on drugs. One of my favorite questions for them is: "What do you have against an open and honest review of the evidence?"

If they do not agree to an open and honest review of the evidence then they clearly demonstrate that they are too extreme to even consider the facts. If they do agree to the review, then I have them every time because I have already read the evidence and I know what it says.

Judo is better than boxing.

You can beat someone with boxing, in which case you knock them down with your weight. Or, you can beat someone with judo, in which case you knock them down with their own weight. Judo is always better than boxing when you have to persuade someone. Use the arguments your audience finds persuasive, not the arguments you find persuasive.

For example, if you encounter a fundamentalist Christian, nothing you will say to them will have any meaning to them at all unless they believe that Jesus Christ would support what you are saying. So far most of them have believe that drug users should be thrown in prison because drug use is immoral -- that is, Jesus would not approve of drug use. I have found that the best approach to these people is to help them to understand it in their own terms. What I say is:

"You are certainly a better Christian than I am so you tell me. If Jesus came down here today and we gave the drug problem to him, what do you think he would do? Would he build bigger prisons? Or would he build hospitals and schools?"

When the issue is stated in these simple terms, most of them will come around right away. They will immediately see the good sense in an approach that heals, rather than punishes.

Avoid complex arguments

The supporters of the drug war have, in keeping with their general intellectual level, made the simplest propaganda possible. The eggs in the frying pan commercial is a good example. In order to compete with them, it is necessary to make arguments which are as simple and as easily understood as possible. There are a lot of ways to get really complicated in a drug argument but two of the favorites are arguments based on civil liberties and economics. Please keep in mind that I agree with the arguments based on civil liberties and economics, I just don't find them persuasive to others.

Arguments based on such topics as civil liberties or economics are not likely to be persuasive for three reasons:

1) They are complicated issues which take a lot of thought. Even if you come up with a reasonable sounding argument today, someone will just confuse them tomorrow with an equally good sounding argument.

2) Surveys consistently show that a large portion of the American public would readily sacrifice their civil liberties to try to solve some mythical problem.

3) The people who are likely to be persuaded are already persuaded.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but, in general, most people will not be persuaded by philosophical arguments about civil liberties, or arcane arguments about economics. It may be sad, but it is true.

One of the major exceptions to this is property owners. Property owners in California have become very sensitive to the fact that their property can be seized even though they knew nothing at all about criminal activity on the property. Property owners can be a pretty vocal group so they should not be overlooked as allies.

Economic arguments, when used, should be simplified to avoid long-winded discussions which do not resolve anything. For example: With $500,000 of tax money we can put one drug user in prison, or we can provide treatment or education for more than 100 people. Which do you think is the better deal?

Build agreement.

Sales people know that a person is more likely to agree with you if they have already agreed with you. That is, if you can get them to agree that it is a nice day, for example, they will be more likely to agree with whatever else you may say. You get them in the habit of saying "Yes" and they will keep saying "Yes."

There are certain issues on which nearly everyone will readily agree. The first is that people who are sick should get whatever medicine they need. If they understand that marijuana can help save the lives of people with AIDS and cancer, and that heroin can help relieve extreme chronic pain, and may even speed healing after surgery or injury, they will usually agree that -- for medical purposes at least -- we should allow the use of these drugs. Then point out:

Sick people are suffering and dying because they need these medicines to live. If that was the only reason to re-examine our drug policy it would be reason enough. But, as you know, it is not the only reason to re-examine what we are doing. Isn't it time to examine all these problems and see what really is the right thing to do?

Attack the very foundations of the drug laws.

The drug laws were the product of racism and ignorance. They never did have anything to do with public health and safety. It is important that people understand this point. Most people wrongly assume that the drug laws were passed because it was necessary to protect people against dangerous drugs. Most people do not know that, at the time the laws were passed, there was no medical evidence to show that these drugs were dangerous, and that major newspapers like the New York Times published articles with titles like "Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace." Once people begin to understand that there never was a good reason for the laws in the first place, then it is perfectly legitimate to ask what is the reason for these laws now.

This can lead to a discussion of how the drug laws came to be (your opponent loses by default); or the fact that half of all our prison inmates are black, most of them there on drug charges; or the fact that in places like Washington, DC, ninety percent of all the black men have already been to jail, most of them on drug charges (your opponent loses by embarrassment).

One standard response

The following sentence works for nearly anything your opponent may say:

"There is no evidence to support that assertion. Every major study of drug policy agreed that, even if it was true, decriminalization would still be a better solution."

For example, they may say that, if drugs are legalized that everyone will become drug addicts. You say:

"There is no evidence to support that assertion. Every major study of drug policy agreed that, even if drug use did increase, decriminalization would still be a better solution."

Preface your sentences

Put a prefix in front of your sentences. The prefix is "Every major study agreed . . ." Without this phrase, the things you say will be interpreted as your own opinion. If you use this phrase, your opinions are seen more clearly as the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Also, this phrase will force your opponent to debate on the basis of fact, where they are the weakest, and will quickly flatten their best arguments.

Attack, Attack, Attack.

It is the only way you will win. Even if people believed that legalization was right, they would still support the current set of laws because they aren't certain about legalization and believe the criminal laws do no harm. They must be made to see that the current laws are worse than no laws at all. You must put your opponents on the extreme defensive and keep them there. Make them justify all of the awful facts. The subject is not legalization or decriminalization. The subject is prison.

Keep it short and punchy.

Know what you are going to say and trim every excess word. If you are really lucky you will get a full fifteen minutes of media air time to explain everything there is to know about drugs. Hit the major facts as rapidly as you can.

Memorize what you want to say

Salesmen memorize their sales pitch because, once they have it down by rote, they can say it without even thinking, thus freeing their tactical brain to get an edge on their prospect. With tricky subjects like drug policy reform it is very easy to make verbal missteps which will weaken your case, or send your audience into extreme cognitive dissonance (a mental shutdown) where they will not hear another thing you say. Be extremely careful about the phrasing you use and stick with the phrasing which will keep you out of trouble. Memorize the names of the studies so you can spit them out without thinking.

Stick to the issue.

Don't let the discussion stray into related social issues. Drug policy is one of those issues which is closely intertwined with other issues such as morality, education, health care, welfare, and many others. Don't get sidetracked into arguments over welfare reform or some other complicated issue You don't have time for it and most Americans don't have the brain capacity to understand the complexities anyway. The issue is whether building massive prisons will solve the drug problem.

Get the facts out.

Most people do not know the actual statistics on things like drug deaths, the number of people in prison, the percentage of black men who will go to prison and the plight of medical patients who cannot get these medicines. When they hear the facts, they really begin to wonder about the current policy.

Win by inches.

Don't try to bring people too far in their thinking. The concept of legalization or decriminalization is a big intellectual and emotional stretch for a lot of people and you could easily spend years getting them to fully believe it. It is simply not practical, or necessary, to try to bring people over to the legalization side all at once. People will naturally come to the legalization point of view if you can simply convince them that our current policy is a disaster which could never work (and that is really easy!). Once they agree that the current policy is not working, and cannot work, then they will ask themselves -- if prisons don't work, what should we do? When they confront this question, they have started down the slippery slope to decriminalization.

Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein said, "Unthinking acceptance of the current drug policy is unreasonable." If we can just get people to admit that there is a real problem with what we are doing now, and that we must look for a better solution, they will eventually agree with you.

An interesting thing happened to Judge James P. Gray. A man wrote Judge Gray a letter in which he started out by telling Judge Gray how wrong Judge Gray was about legalization. The guy tried to tell Judge Gray why he was so wrong and, in the space of three written pages, wound up realizing that Judge Gray was right. He convinced himself once he just sat down and thought about it.

Take the moral high ground

Our opponents like to take the stance that anyone who does not believe in huge prisons full of drug dealers is less than moral, beneath contempt, and is probably selling drugs to grade-school children in their spare time. It is time to tear down this moral charade.

There is nothing moral about incarcerating most of the black men in America. There is nothing moral about denying legitimate medicines to people who are suffering and dying. There is nothing moral about a drug policy which seeks to destroy people, not heal them. The damage being done by this policy is too great to allow anyone to maintain the pretense that this drug war is something holy and moral.


Don't use the "L" word, the "D" word, or the "M" word.

Don't use "legalization," "decriminalization," or "medicalization". These words tend to set some people's heads on fire. In the first place, these words will cause many people to go into an immediate complete mental shut-down and they will not hear another thing you say. In the second place, it is wrong to reduce what must necessarily be a complex policy under any circumstances, to a single word. It only serves to further distort the issue. Besides, you don't have to use the words to win.

Some people have mentioned that the word "legalization" must be used sooner or later in the public debate simply because a recognition that prison is wrong will lead people to consider the alternatives, which will ultimately lead to legalization. This is certainly true. However, I would recommend that you let your opponent use it first, and that you do not promote it as a cause.

Don't defend the use of drugs.

Don't tell people that everyone has a God-given right to put whatever they want to in to their body. You may be right, and I happen to agree, but it won't play in Peoria. Many people just view this as an excuse to get loaded (and, in many cases, they are right).

Don't advance your own plan for selling drugs.

Do not discuss your personal plan for how legalization would work The reasons are:

a) You can only sell one product at a time. First convince them whether we should change the laws. We will have plenty of time for how later.

b) When you suggest how it should be done then your individual ideas become the focus. If your plan fails for any reason, then your whole argument will fail, and;

c) The real secret is that there is no right answer to drug policy. Every idea you will suggest is only the lesser of multiple evils and leaves you open to violent emotional attack.

Don't get tied up in debates over the health risks.

First let me state that the evidence is quite clear that, by any standard of comparison, alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous than almost any of the illegal drugs. However, the relative health risks are not really the issue.

Just because something is dangerous does not automatically mean that the best approach to those dangers is to throw millions of people in prison. We all know that tobacco, and alcohol, and AIDS are hazardous to your health. But we all would agree that prison is not the best public policy for those hazards. Prison, in fact, would be a terrible mistake.

It is the same principle with illegal drugs. We can assume that drugs are dangerous. That is not the question. The question is: What is the best public policy for those dangers? On this question, every major study of drug policy has agreed that, whatever the dangers may be, prison is the wrong approach. Every major study recommended decriminalization because of those dangers, and because prison is the worst approach. Bigger prisons do not equal better public health policy.

Don't get stuck on questions which cannot be answered.

Congressman Charles Rangel likes to ask the question, "How do you propose that we go about legalizing drugs? Should we have crack stores next to liquor stores?" The trick is that there really is no perfect answer, and any answer you give leaves you open to attack. It turns the issue into one of your personal social ideas rather than the objective truth that all studies agree that decriminalization, under almost any scenario, is a better approach.

Don't Overdose

I generally avoid mention of overdoses because the word itself distorts the issue in a very emotional sense. The drug which produces the most overdoses is alcohol. No one thinks of a drunk high school kid puking into a toilet as a drug overdose, even when you point it out to them. Consumers Union found that there are very few real drug overdoses and none at all for marijuana. Most of the so-called "overdoses" were clearly attributable to other causes, such as impurities in the drugs.

Don't get the issues stuck between you

People are more likely to believe you and be persuaded by what you say if they feel that you share their same basic concerns, that is, if they feel you are "on their side." Always explain you answers in terms of their thoughts and goals. Your goals are probably the same as theirs anyway -- reducing the harm done by drugs, keeping drugs away from kids, controlling the social costs of drugs, etc.

Don't let them have anything.

There are many, many myths about drugs and drug use. Like for instance, the old myth that pushers spike marijuana with heroin and cocaine to get unsuspecting kids hooked. It doesn't happen. Licit and Illicit Drugs effectively explodes most of these myths. If your opponent mentions such a myth, jump down his throat and point out that there is no evidence at all to support what he is saying. Make them prove it. You can prove what you say, they can't.

Don't get stuck on Constitutional issues.

Issues based on the US Constitution will generally not be persuasive for a number of reasons:

  1. They are complicated. They require a lot of knowledge of history, law, and other subjects which most people, including you, are not likely to have. Like any other complicated issue, anyone can make long-winded discussions go on forever with no clear resolution. Complicated arguments are best avoided because they just don't win.
  1. The people who are likely to agree with you probably already agree with you. Many Americans, including some intelligent ones, do not understand the protections afforded by the Constitution and why they are so important. Many people tend to feel that the protections of the Constitution were only meant to be given to the law-abiding citizens like them and, besides, if innocent people are hurt because the police have violated their rights, then that is just the price we have to pay for law and order. It is pointless to argue with these people on this point because, for the most part, you are not going to change their basic attitude about it.
  1. Even if you win, you don't win anything. Even if you get your opponent to agree that Fourth Amendment rights (or some other rights) are being violated by the police, it can be dismissed as simple bad management. That is, they will argue that we should manage it a little better, but we still ought to continue the war on drugs. Constitutional arguments in general do not effectively address the point that the drug war is morally and practically wrong at its very foundations.

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