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Show Stopper Questions for Your Opponent

by Clifford A. Schaffer

These are the questions that drug warriors are simply unable to answer. They stop them cold every time.

Please keep in mind with all of these questions that your opponents will try their best to squirm out of an answer. If you are talking to a politician, they will typically try to put out a ten-minute smoke screen and hope no one recognizes that they never did answer the question. If they try the smoke screen, try the approach listed under Smokescreen:

How many millions of people do you think we ought to put prison for drugs to have the best results?

I have asked many people this question over the years. It is at that point that they usually fall out of the debate. No one can answer this question with anything that makes any sense, except zero. The first, and most obvious thing they do, is to try to talk their way around it. This is not an essay question.

According to various estimates there are at least twelve million regular users of illegal drugs, and possibly as many as forty million. We now have about 1.5 million people in prisons and jails across the country, and all the jail cells are already full. It is immediately obvious to everyone that we cannot afford to put forty million people in prison, even if it was a good idea. In fact, we cannot afford to put twelve million people in jail, either.

Most people, when asked this question, will immediately back off of the idea that we should put drug users in prison, simply because it is obvious that there is no way we could jail enough of them to make a dent in the problem. "Just send the drug dealers to prison." they will say.

"OK," I ask. "How many do you suppose there are?"

They usually don't know, so you have to lead them a little bit. Under the law, all drug users are technically dealers because anyone who ever passed a joint to another person at a rock concert is considered a "drug distributor". Under most state laws, it matters little what the context was, or whether the person received any profit from passing the joint to the next person. So, potentially, that would mean we would imprison up to forty million people -- obviously impossible.

Therefore, we determine that we can't go by the current legal definition of a drug dealer, but we would have to make a requirement that we only go after those who are really in the regular business of selling drugs, either on a part-time, or full-time basis. If we assume that about ten percent of the users are "dealers" by this definition (a fair estimate), that would mean that there are somewhere between 1.2 million and 4 million drug dealers. In order to succeed then, we would have to build up to four prisons and jails for every one which now exists -- and hope that solved the problem.

One person, ex-DEA agent Michael Levine suggested that we just jail the hard core drug users, a number he estimated at about 2.7 million. I asked him if he really thought it was a good idea to build two or three prisons for every one which now exists, jail almost three million more people, and hope that would solve the problem. It seemed to me obvious that it wouldn't, since it would leave between ten and forty million casual drug users to go about their business.

A few won't back off and will insist that we should jail all forty million people, if we have to. Some have even insisted that we should also jail another hundred million who indulge in tobacco or alcohol. These people will look like fools in front of the vast majority of audiences, and just cause most people to come over to the side of reform.

Their Answer

Any answer to this question is bound to be wrong. If they mention a low number, point out that we already have hundreds of thousands of people in prison for illegal drugs and millions have been arrested and prosecuted. That obviously did not stamp out drugs, so a small increase in the prisoners will not have any good effect.

A general line of BS.

Drug warriors will do anything they can to get out of answering the simplest question about our drug policy. Don't let them get away with evading a direct question. Come back to the point until they either give you an answer or admit they don't have a clue. We are embarked on a campaign which is based on the belief that we can put enough people in prison to effectively control the drug problem. The question is simple: How many prisoners is the current plan going to take?

They have asked us, the taxpayers to write a blank check for prisons. As the people writing the check for these taxes, it is only fair for us to ask for the amount that is going to go on the check. Just tell us how many prison cells are going to be required.

No one knows the answer to that question.

Bull. It is perfectly easy to calculate the number of prison cells needed to address criminal problems. For example, there are approximately 25,000 homicides in the US each year which means that we need a maximum of about 25,000 prison beds to hold the perpetrators. A similar estimate could be drawn for the number of robbers, rapists, etc. In all of these cases, the number of prison cells required to hold the perpetrators is something our country can manage. This is not the case with the drug laws.

Your question assumes that we will imprison forty million people.

No, the question doesn't assume anything. I want you to tell me how many people you think we ought to put in jail, and then tell me your assumptions.

As many as we have already.

Does that mean you would be willing to end all further drug arrests beyond the amount we have now? Once the police reach this quota, should they stop arresting drug offenders because we know we only have room for so many?

Any number of million.

If they mention five, ten, or twenty million, multiply the number they mention by $500,000 and tell them the cost of that approach. For example, the cost to incarcerate 1 million people is five hundred billion dollars; 2 million is one trillion Dollars, 10 million is five trillion dollars, and so forth. Then crucify them for wanting to build prisons larger than the Nazi concentration camps.

I don't know.

If they say they don't know, then say, "That is precisely the problem. No one, including you, has ever sat down to figure it out. If you did, you would find out soon enough that it is just plain impossible to solve the problem this way."


Excuse me for interrupting, but that was not an essay question. The question can be answered with just a simple number. What will it take, 5 million, 10 million, 20 million? How many millions of people will have to go to prison to solve the drug problem this way?

For Drug Enforcement Officers: What would you do if you got your fondest wish? What would do if, tomorrow morning, you woke up and every drug user in America was lined up outside your door with a bag of dope in one hand and a signed confession in the other?

Their Answer

Their immediate response is usually, "I would arrest them, of course!"

That is a perfect opportunity to ask "OK, how many do you suppose there would be? I am just asking because I want to help you get whatever you need to do the job right."

That will lead into the general discussion shown in the previous question.

For Devout Christians: What would Jesus do if we gave this problem to Him? Would He build bigger prisons? Or would He build hospitals and schools?

I usually preface this question by saying, "You are a better Christian than I am, and you probably know more about Jesus than I do. So you tell me . . ." Give them credit for the strength and correctness of their belief.

Their Answer

Most Christians will be stunned by the simplicity and power of this argument. Most of them will be able to immediately see the sense behind what we are saying. Some of the immediate reactions I have gotten from Christians, including ministers, are:

"When you put it that way, the answer is obvious."

"That's pretty cut and dried, isn't it?"

"Schools and hospitals, obviously."

Most of the answers will be in that vein.

A few Christians are exceptionally bigoted people and will insist on hell-fire and damnation for anyone who dares to transgress their ideas of sin. They are in the definite minority and the vast majority of people will see their reactions as extreme.

On one occasion, a prominent minister told me that he thought perhaps Jesus might build bigger prisons because of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. "Correct me if I am wrong," I said, "but I believe the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is in the Old Testament, not the New Testament." He got the point that the ministry of Jesus was all about love and healing.

One minister told me that he thought Jesus would build a certain number of prisons in order to keep the dangerous people from harming others. "That's probably true," I said, "but what about the prisoners -- up to two-thirds of them -- who are there purely for non-violent drug offenses?"

I have here a list of every major study of drug policy in the last fifty years. Every one of them recommended decriminalization. Do you agree that the overwhelming weight of the scholarly evidence on drug policy supports decriminalization?

Before you answer, let me remind you that there are only three possible answers to this question.

The first possible answer is yes, you agree.

The second possible answer is no, you do not agree, in which case you should be able to provide a list of studies of drug policy comparable in quality and quantity to the list I have provided.

The third possible answer is that you don't have a clue what the scholarly evidence says because you have never read the most basic research on the subject.

Their Answer

The answers that I have gotten to this question include:

The scholarly evidence is not important. (From Bob Martinez, former Drug Czar)

Is the scholarly evidence not important in science, medicine, and every other field of law? Or is it not important only when it comes to drug policy?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer.

Can you name any major study of drug policy which supported what we are currently doing? (They probably can't.) So we have ten major studies, including the largest studies ever conducted by the governments of the United States, Britain, and Canada, which supported decriminalization and none that supported the current policy. Wouldn't you say that is the overwhelming weight of the evidence?

Everyone has their list of studies which they can make up to show anything they want.

OK, so show me any comparable list of studies that you have in support of the drug war. (So far, in more than six years of debates, no opponent has ever mentioned a single major study of drug policy which supports the current drug war.)

I don't have a clue.

That is precisely the problem. You want to tell us what drug policy should be when you have not even bothered to read the most basic research on the subject.

Here is a list of studies . . . .

A few people have tried to bluff their way through by citing studies about organized crime, alcohol, or something else. They may also cite magazine articles, books by particular authors, editorials or other opinion pieces, etc. Examine each one carefully. Is it really a comprehensive study of the history and facts relating to these drug laws, or is it just one person's view? Did it consider all evidence and all views? Was it comprehensive, or was it a simple magazine article of a few pages? Did the author have an axe to grind or something to gain from the opinion expressed? Does the work contain a complete discussion of the history of the laws? Does it consider the laws in the context of similar facts about tobacco and alcohol?

People have mentioned a lot of different things in response to this question, but none of them have met the criteria of a serious study of drug policy.


Excuse me for interrupting, but that was not an essay question. That was multiple choice. What is your answer; yes, no, or don't have a clue?

It costs about half a million dollars to put a single drug user in prison, which includes $150,000 for arrest and prosecution, about $150,000 for a new prison cell, and about $30,000 per year times at least five years. For the same cost we can provide treatment or education for more than one hundred people. Which do you think is the better deal?

Their Answer:

Almost no one will attempt to argue that prison for one person is better than education or treatment for several hundred. Most often they will say, "It's not that simple, you can't just say that because you are not going to put one person in prison that you automatically have the money for treatment or education."

You answer:

It IS that simple. Right now, California and several other states are closing schools, libraries, and medical facilities in order to build more prisons. The money is being taken from education and treatment to fund more prisons.

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