A curious discussion about legalizing illicit drugs

(Overheard in the (mythical) Fog Island Tavern… My apologies for the incomplete account of the statements, which is not doing them justice; I simply try to focus on the aspects that raised the concerns.)

Hey Abbé Boulah, I’m glad to see you here — I have  a question for you.

And a good evening to you too, Bog-Hubert. What’s such an urgent question that won’t even let you order a drink to start with?

Ah, Vodçek knows what I need.  Well, I ran into that candidate for the Senate I told you about,  who is thinking about running on a platform of legalizing illicit drugs, so we had a little exchange about that over at the dock.  And then I remembered you’d talked about this group in Australia that held a big discussion on the internet about that same question —  whether the country should legalize drugs. Asked people on the internet to vote on it, based on the arguments they posted. So what’s you opinion about that issue?

Ahh — which issue — legalizing drugs  or that discussion? 

That sly question itself tells me you don’t want to come clean on the legalizing problem. Is that because you don’t agree with the other policies of this Senate candidate? Okay, So what’s your take on that Aussie discussion?

You know me too well, Bogmeister. But the drug problem is really an issue I haven’t made up my mind about. I haven’t really thought about it that much lately — and that discussion didn’t do much to sway my opinion either way.

Why is that? You seemed quite excited about the piece the other day?

Yes, but that was because of the curious way they stated their arguments, not so much about the content.  Let me explain.  This is a group that  puts up some interesting controversial issues for online discussion, presents  a ‘pro’ and a ‘con’ statement — a video with transcription — invites followers to join the discussion and to vote on it.  So far, I’ve only read the transcript; you know I get impatient with all those videos. And it gave me some interesting insight into how many people argue such cases, especially in view of our old problem of how one should go about carefully and systematically evaluating such arguments before deciding. And mapping the discussion to give people a better overview.

Cripes, now it’s getting theoretical.

Can’t be helped.  Cheers. Well, the first guy, the proponent of legalization begins  by stating that drugs should be legalized because the ‘war on drugs’ has been a failure. And he cites the opinion of community leaders who acknowledge this. 

Okay. Does he mention specifics of that failure?

Oh yes;  he lists a whole lot of them:  Aims of the ‘war on drugs’ that have not been achieved.

And does he provide any good evidence for that?

That’s the interesting part. No, he just states the claims. He even started out by saying those failures are ‘self-evident’ . Which means: no evidence needed?

But  wait:  those aren’t really arguments for legalization, but against — what — the war on drugs,  continued prohibition?

Good point:  you are making progress in this business. They are all arguments against the alternative proposal, the status quo — that hasn’t been stated.  But of course it’s there, implicitly, as the current ‘solution’  that should be replaced. And the interesting part is that  listing those failures of the status quo they are making some implicit claims.  Claims that maybe should have been made explicit. 

What claims? Other than that the war on drugs is a flop?

One implied claim is that there is a drug problem that should be tackled somehow; — that probably isn’t controversial, so it doesn’t have to be mentioned because  it’s assumed everybody agrees on it. But  he characterizes that problem differently:  he says it’s a health and social problem, not a criminal one. Which therefore calls for a different approach to deal with it. And even more interestingly:  doesn’t he make the implied claim that there are only two possible solutions to it —  prohibition and legalization? There’s no mention of any other possibility. And if so, the arguments against the war on drugs do become arguments for legalization (in a listener’s mind) — even though he doesn’t explicitly state those arguments. What he says, without saying it, is that legalization would in fact achieve all those aims of the war on drugs.

So what you are saying is that in order to make a thorough evaluation of all the pros and cons, these arguments should be made explicit, and listed in the evaluation worksheet  for that purpose — where you list all the premises and give them scores for plausibility and weight etc.

Right.  That bothers me. The arguments have been slipped into the audience’s mind. But they haven’t been stated openly.

Why does that bother you? If they aren’t stated, they can’t be evaluated.

True. But they are sticking in the mind. So they will subtly or not so subtly influence any vote, won’t they? They also can’t easily be shown on a map of the discourse, at least if we stick to the rule that the maps shows issues that have been raised. And if they aren’t stated and shown, they can’t be questioned and scrutinized, as some of them should be. 


Well, look at some of the so-called ‘aims’ of the war on drugs:  while some are easy to agree on, others are puzzling: for example, the ‘aim’ that drug quality — purity — should be reduced.  This helps to make drugs less appealing because more dangerous —  but is this also an aim of  a n y  overall effort to deal with the drug problem?  One that legalization would achieve more successfully? I don’t know, it looks like one that should at least be discussed, no?  But since it’s not stated,  it’s just part of a long list of arguments against the alternative of prohibition that now works just because of its length. Interesting, huh? 

Well, I’m sure that doesn’t make too much of a difference among all the other arguments for and against.  What were the other pro-legalization arguments?

There weren’t any in the proponent’s statement. Or only very few, really. 

You’re kidding me. Even I can come up with some good arguments about that.  So what was he talking about, then?

He was providing information about a very plausible question — one that any undecided person would be likely, even prudent to ask: the details of the legalization proposal. He talked about — as I mentioned — treating the problem as a health and social issue calling for health and social intervention measures, about shifting funding from law enforcement to such programs, about moving slowly and incrementally,  about taxing cannabis, about  licenses for production, sale, distribution of drugs, about establishing supervised needle  and injection centers as well as other treatment facilities. 

Sounds reasonable.  People should know enough about the details of such projects before voting on them.

I can’t argue with that. The problem is: how should such descriptions be dealt with in the argument evaluation?

Why would they? They are just descriptions of the proposal — he didn’t make them out to be ‘pro’ arguments, did he?

Not explicitly, no. But devoting a considerable part of the presentation on these details, aren’t they meant to be part of the ‘pro’ case?  So the description of all these niceties stick in the mind as favorable features — but since they are not stated as arguments, they also will not be examined, questioned for their validity, plausibility, importance in view of the  yes/no decision. For the usual practice of asking people to make a decision — vote yes or no — on the basis of such a rhetorical presentation, they will do the intended job, quite nicely. But for a systematic evaluation, prompting questions for supporting evidence or other supporting arguments,  this practice poses some tough questions.  Should such points be included as explicit arguments?  And whose responsibility is it to do that? 

Whose responsibility? You mean the proponent or the opponent?  Or some other person or component of the system?  By the way, talking about the opponent, wouldn’t he bring these issues up if he thought they would make a difference? What did he say?

Glad you remind me. The opponent’s statement was just as interesting in its own way.  He started out by flatly characterizing legalization as ‘not a viable solution’  that would not solve but rather exacerbate the drug problem. Again, no real argument for that claim was offered, but some ‘authority’ support referring to UN Drug Conventions recognizing that “drugs are an enormous social and health problem and that the trade adversely affects the global economy.”

Hey, wasn’t that just what the legalization proponent said?  That it’s a health and social problem, not a criminal one? And he used that as an argument for continued prohibition, that is, criminalization?

Curiously, yes.  But the case is made mainly by straight-out negation of the claims of ‘war on drugs’  failure (but he does not use the term ‘war on drugs’ ). He contradicts the proponent’s claims — the UN controls  a r e  working, the problem would have been much worse without them, and so on. Most of the claims of ‘failed aims’  are denied — but just like those, without offering additional evidence or support.  There are some statistics thrown in, but they are not compared with any corresponding data for the proposed legalization, so they just give more of an impression of evidence than constituting a real substantial data-based argument.  The remainder of the case is based on a number of claims of aims that legalization will not achieve, only some of which match the items in the proponent’s list of aims not achieved by the war on drugs. And most if not all of those statements are aimed at claims  and arguments the proponent did not state:  they are ‘presumed’ claims of the pro-legalization side.

They could have been claims that had been made in other documents and media statements:  things the opponent had heard before, that are common knowledge?

True. But some of them could also fall into the class of ‘straw man’ arguments — strange arguments attributed to the other side that are easy  to demolish, and thereby giving the impression that the entire case of the other side is as shaky.  But there wasn’t even much demolishing — with additional evidence — just denying those presumed claims.

So you are saying that those denied claims should be added to the proponent’s arguments before doing a detailed evaluation, is that it? All that would add some considerable complications to our evaluation process, wouldn’t it?

Very true. And to the mapping task. 

Why the mapping?

Because the picture of each sides’ issues and arguments now looks very different from the proponent’s and the opponent’s side.  Should the map show only the issues and arguments each side has actually stated?  Or the implied ones the other side is attacking? Maybe it will be necessary to make up different maps for each side.

Yeah, that will cause some additional quarreling:  which map is the ‘real’ one? Wasn’t the idea that such maps would show a kind of ‘objective’ picture of what’s being discussed?  And now you are suggesting that the maps too become partisan?  I say, that item did raise some troublesome issues about such discussions and how the framework should support them.

Indeed they did. More than it helped me make up my mind about the drug legalization issue.  Based on the arguments proposed in that experiment, I am not  ready to cast a meaningful vote on whether drugs should be legalized. But wouldn’t you also say that those very problems make more systematic evaluation that much more important? While that was probably not their intention, we should be grateful for such groups to raise the issue of how such decisions should be made and argued.  And the example might help us design a better argument evaluation  approach.

I can’t argue with that. Get to work. Cheers.

1 Response to “A curious discussion about legalizing illicit drugs”

  1. 1 Thinking about YourView… | The Blog – YourView Australia Trackback on June 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: