At times lawyer-like, at others sharp-tongued and defensive, Glenn Greenwald, a politics and law columnist for Salon.com, and John Walters, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Bush administration, debated national drug policy before a crowd unafraid to voice its opinions.
In a Janus Forum debate titled “What if the U.S. Legalized All Drugs?”, the approximately 300 students, faculty and community members in attendance swelled in loud applause for Greenwald’s pro-legalization arguments while meeting Walters’ claims with a palpable lack of responsiveness.
The speakers presented 25-minute oral arguments before answering audience questions.
Greenwald’s presentation could not help but reveal his training as a lawyer. Never looking at his notes, he centered his argument on the premise that drug addiction and abuse should be “treated for what it is — a health problem” rather than be criminalized.
The criminal justice system “destroys the lives of individuals that proponents of the drug war are trying to help,” Greenwald said. “What is it that we do to those we are trying to help? We take them and we charge them with crimes. We turn them into felons which in this climate renders them unemployable. We put them into cages for many years, and keep them away from their children and their families.”
Constantly echoing his refrain that prohibition and the war on drugs are the problems, rather than drugs themselves, Greenwald also made economic and race-based points, citing the disproportionate number of drug-related arrests wracking urban black communities and the massive, growing costs of drug policies that are compounded in this “age of austerity.”
Walters, faced with the onus of rebutting what was clearly the more popular side, began his argument by launching straight into empirical evidence, countering Greenwald’s claim that opponents of legalization often engage in “oralizing, fear-mongering and speculation.”
Constructing his argument using a series of charts based on statistics compiled by federal government and international agencies, Walters argued that drug use is inherently dangerous and will become “self-destructive.” Even if users initially consume drugs “for purposes of pleasure … it changes the way they perceive their own situation.”
He went on to claim that it is the obligation of the socially responsible to help abusers get treatment, even if they do not want it, and said there is no method that better achieves this end than law enforcement. Referencing a study conducted by the National Drug Court Institute, Walters said the “criminal justice system is the biggest referral for people to seek treatment,” with about 80 percent of treatment recipients originating in courts.
“I have met so many people who have graduated from drug court treatment who have said, ‘The day I was arrested was the luckiest day of my life. It saved my life. I got through it, I got sober and I got my life back,’” Walters said.
Audience questions sparked the most heated exchanges of the night.
Walters addressed students directly, telling them to “have the guts to tell the truth” and realize that drugs are nothing more than a “disease.”
When the topic of debate turned tangentially to Bush-era policies, Greenwald’s rhetoric veered toward vitriol as he criticized Walters’ comment that the Arab Spring was fueled by Bush administration efforts in the Middle East.
Following the event, many students agreed that Greenwald had won the debate. “Greenwald showed that the costs of the drug war massively outweigh any conceivable benefits,” said Alex Gourevitch, a postdoctoral fellow working with the Political Theory Project. “Walters offered no rebuttal, empirical or theoretical.”
But Angela Straccia ’14 said both sides had been convincing. “There is no way you can ‘win’ this type of debate,” she said, “but presentation-wise, Greenwald was definitely better. Walters didn’t shape the context of the debate.”