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Legalizing drugs won't prevent abuse

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
February 15, 2012 -- Updated 1247 GMT (2047 HKT)
Whitney Houston had a long and public struggle with drugs, legal and illegal.
Whitney Houston had a long and public struggle with drugs, legal and illegal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Whitney Houston had a long and public struggle with drugs, but cause of her death is unknown
  • William Bennett: Some have said legalizing drugs would have saved Houston's life
  • Numerous celebrities have died from using drugs that are legal and prescribed by doctors
  • Bennett: Legalization does not prevent the abuse and misuse of drug; it accelerates it

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- On the evening of Whitney Houston's death, renowned recording artist Tony Bennett told the audience of Clive Davis' Beverly Hills party, "First it was Michael Jackson, then it was Amy Winehouse, and now, the magnificent Whitney Houston. I'd like to have every gentleman and lady in this room commit themselves to get our government to legalize drugs -- so they'll have to get it through a doctor, not to some gangsters who just sell it under the table."

Bennett's idiotic comments were followed closely by the often original, but in this case mistaken, Arianna Huffington.

On Monday morning's edition of "CNN Starting Point With Soledad O'Brien," she agreed with Bennett: "The point I think is absolutely fair -- that the war on drugs has failed, and we are not acknowledging it. We are spending over $50 billion a year fighting a war that has become a war on our own people."

First, we do not know the immediate cause of Houston's death. But we do know that she had a long and public struggle with drugs, both legal and illegal. But legalizing drugs and making them more readily available would not have saved her life, or the life of Michael Jackson, or the thousands of other drug-related deaths each year.

William Bennett
William Bennett

Lest Tony Bennett forget, Michael Jackson died from acute propofol intoxication administered to him by a doctor.

Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning -- a legal, easily available substance.

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A fatal combination of painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-depressants -- all legal prescription drugs -- killed Heath Ledger.

Brittany Murphy died from multiple drug intoxications (only prescription and over-the-counter medications according to the medical exam) combined with pneumonia.

And Anna Nicole Smith overdosed on prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

All these drugs are legal and prescribed by doctors. Contrary to what Tony Bennett and other legalizers would like to think, legalization does not prevent the abuse and misuse of drugs. In fact, it accelerates it.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, prescription drug abuse is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem. In 2007, there were 28,000 deaths from prescription drug overdoses. This is five times higher than the number in 1990. More people die in America every year from prescription drug abuse (i.e., legal and available drugs) than from heroin and cocaine combined.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of deaths from prescription narcotics increased fourfold over the past 10 years. This coincided with a fourfold increase in the number of prescriptions written for powerful painkillers. Legalization increases supply and when you increase supply, you increase the use and misuse of deadly drugs.

As for Bennett's envy of Amsterdam, he should realize that its legalization experiment has backfired. With the legalization of marijuana came an increase in drug addictions and dependency followed by illegal drug trafficking, human trafficking and crime. After a rapid influx of organized crime, the Netherlands has announced that it will ban foreigners from the country's pot shops starting in 2013.

Drug decriminalization in Portugal has also been a failure.

As of 2007, Portugal was still the country with the most cases of injected drug related AIDS, and it was the only European country to show a significant increase in homicides from 2001 to 2006.

"With 219 deaths by drug 'overdose' a year, Portugal has one of the worst records, reporting more than one death every two days. Along with Greece, Austria and Finland, Portugal is one of the countries that recorded an increase in drug overdose by over 30% in 2005," according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Bennett and Huffington's misguided solutions would result in more tragic deaths like Houston's. Illicit drugs are not harmful because they are illegal, they are illegal precisely because they are harmful. It is my hope that in the national dialogue surrounding Houston's death, our country's loudest voices would speak honestly and seriously about the drug problems in America.

In the 1980s and '90s, the U.S. beat back the cocaine and heroine epidemics, not by legalization or decriminalization, but by tough law enforcement, strong prevention and education programs and public outcry. You could hardly watch TV without seeing the Partnership For a Drug-Free America's famous "This is your brain on drugs" advertisements. If we are to be successful today, we must reignite that same national effort.

Whitney Houston's mother, Cissy Houston, understood the seriousness of drug abuse. In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Houston recalled how her mother showed up one day at her doorstep with sheriff's officers and a court order in a drug intervention.

"(My mother) says, 'I have a court (injunction) here,' " Houston said. "Either you do it my way, or we're just not going to do this at all. We are both going to go on TV, and you're going to retire.'"

If more Americans, celebrities in particular, spoke and acted like Cissy Houston, rather than like Bennett or Huffington, fewer Americans would be victims to drug addiction.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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