It seemed strange that aging crooner Tony Bennett’s first comment about the death of Whitney Houston was a plea for the legalization of now-outlawed drugs.

His point deserves some consideration, however, in spite of the fact that no illegal drugs appear to have been involved in Houston’s death.

Although she admitted to illegal drug use in the past, and had been treated for it, this time she appears to have overdosed on powerful prescription drugs.

With the autopsy results still weeks away, that account may change as the investigation proceeds, but this is a sad story no matter what develops.

Houston’s death at the far-too-young age of 48 recalls previous pop star overdoses, including Michael Jackson’s and Amy Winehouse’s, with commentators once again asking:

Why would a person with such appeal — and at one time a $100 million fortune — abuse drugs, especially if it apparently killed her? And why weren’t those who cared for her able to halt such a self-destructive path before its predictable finale?

I don’t have the answers, and it may be that there are no satisfactory ones. Celebrities’ lives are not the flights of glamour and grandeur that the fan magazines often make them out to be. People are people, strong in some ways and fragile in others, and those ways are different for all of us.

But this isn’t really about Houston, but Bennett. Here’s what he said to a crowd at the same Beverly Hills hotel where Houston’s body was found: “I’d like to have every gentleman and lady in this room commit themselves to get our government to legalize drugs,” he said. “So they have to get it from a doctor, not just some gangsters that just sell it under the table.”

Addiction specialists, however, said they couldn’t understand Bennett’s point, not only because it didn’t seem to apply to Houston, but also because Jackson died from a prescription drug overdose and Winehouse from alcohol poisoning.

Bennett’s comments weren’t all that strange, however, when you consider that a campaign to legalize some now currently prohibited drugs for “recreational” purposes has persisted for a long time and displays no signs of going away.

The list begins with marijuana, but it doesn’t stop there. Cocaine, heroin, oxycontin, even methamphetamines, all have their supporters. They argue that the current “war on drugs” is too expensive; makes criminals of people who are no danger to society; has created some symptoms of a police state in America; and has led to social unrest and violence not only in this country but also in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Afghanistan and other nations producing drugs for a worldwide market — in which the United States remains the biggest customer.

It’s not all coming from the political left, either. The staunchly conservative magazine National Review has argued for years for the decriminalization of marijuana, and libertarian sources, including the movement’s flagship magazine, Reason, and GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, a doctor, promote the relaxation of many drug prohibitions.

The anti-drug campaign is indeed expensive. Estimates of its total costs, including law enforcement, judicial proceedings, incarceration and treatment are at least $15 billion annually and some place them at more than $40 billion.

Those arguments carry some weight, but there are also weighty arguments against legalization.

One is that the removal of drug prohibitions also will minimize the social stigma associated with their use. It seems logical that when drugs are available as a commodity, they will be ubiquitous, widely available not only to their intended adult users but also to children and others who should never take them.

Comparisons to the failed experiment of Prohibition are countered with the view that society is burdened enough by the problems created by alcohol, a drug that has been present in all cultures for millennia and still remains hedged about with legal barriers to its general use.

Expanding the legality of dozens of other mind-altering substances will have an impact that isn’t easily comprehended, but will have far more undesirable results than beneficial ones. Certainly Houston’s death proves that making drugs legal is not the same thing as making them less dangerous.

Is there a middle ground? Some say that even absent full legalization, redirecting spending toward mandatory long-term treatment instead of imprisonment (with the latter as an option if treatment is ineffective, resisted or refused) is a better long-term social option.

Similar programs have been tried in nations such as Sweden and produced reductions in overall drug use, reports say.

It will do no harm to have the legalization debate more openly, and that may have been Bennett’s point. But there are deeply harmful effects from the abuse of any “social” drug, including alcohol, and we shouldn’t change our laws and attitudes until we’re certain we can protect the most vulnerable among us.


M.D. Harmon is a retired journalist and a freelance writer. Email at [email protected]

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