It's not often that Texas Governor Rick Perry has occasion to wax at length about his views on drug policy, but when you find yourself in Davos, Switzerland, on a World Economic Forum panel devoted to the "drug dilemma," there isn't much else to talk about.
This morning's discussion (it was late evening in Switzerland) focused on narcotics as a intractable global ill that stretches from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the Latin American cartels to street-level pushers everywhere, and it featured insights from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth.
Perry's expertise, and the apparent reason he was included on the panel, stems from the fact that he leads a U.S. state, and that states, particularly post-weed legalization in Colorado and Washington state, have established themselves as laboratories of drug policy.
Texas, of course, is neither Colorado nor Washington, but Perry pointed to criminal justice reforms in the state that have reduced the number of people going to prison on minor drug charges.
Texas' move "toward decriminalization and keeping young people from going into prison" should continue, he said.
But that's where he stopped. Full or partial legalization, he said in his opening statement to the panel, is a non-starter.
"The question for me is, if the economics of this is what really drives this, and we as a society, and we as a government say it is OK for you to smoke marijuana -- [when it's] decriminalized, it's basically saying it's OK for you to use -- what is that going to cost society?"
He harkened back to his days as a kid when he watched movie stars happily puffing away on cigarettes, worrying that more drastic steps toward decriminalization would send the same message for marijuana.
"I'm not sure as a society we want to start down that path and realize 30 years later that we made a mistake," he says.
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Roth, the most libertarian-minded panelist, challenged Perry on the assumption that legalization necessarily implies official endorsement of a drug's use. The government goes to extensive lengths to scare people off of cigarettes, for example, while maintaining that people have a legal right to smoke them.
Perry and Roth quibbled on another point, the notion that the war on drugs, now 40 years old, has failed. He likened it to the war on terror. "Did we fight the war on drugs correctly every day? Has the war on terror been fought correctly every day?" he asked. "No."
But that, he suggested, doesn't mean it's not worth fighting.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.