Tony Newman at 510-812-3126
Former Drug Czar William J. Bennett announced today that he will no longer gamble, after Newsweek and The Washington Monthly reported that he bet and lost millions in the last decade. Bennett was drug czar under the first President Bush, and has continued to be a staunch advocate of punitive policies, including the arrest of hundreds of thousands of people a year for simple marijuana possession.
“Bill Bennett’s policy is to treat regular American marijuana users as morally depraved criminals – while he sips cocktails and gambles more in one night than most of us make in a year,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We’re hoping this might open up some compassion for people whose ‘vices’ land them in prison cells, not Vegas suites.”
Drug policy reform advocates note numerous similarities between gambling and drug use in America – except in the way they are treated by the law. Both are as old as the nation itself, and are engaged in by tens of millions of Americans, despite countless efforts to curb them. The vast majority of people (occasional lottery players, beer drinkers or marijuana smokers) do not become addicted or have a problem with abuse.
The differences in policy, however, are significant. Drug policy is based in the fantasy of a “drug-free” America. Gambling policy, by contrast, is based on the recognition that we must learn to live with gambling so that it does as little harm as possible. As a result, gambling is regulated and taxed in various forms throughout the country. There are almost no Americans incarcerated for gambling. The illegal gambling industry, which at one time was very large and violent, is now a tiny fraction of the size of the illegal drug industry.
In response to questions about the social consequences of gambling, Bennett this week advised those who “can’t handle” gambling or alcohol to simply stay away from them. Yet experts agree that relapse is a common feature of recovery for problem drinkers, gamblers and drug users alike. Bennett and other drug war backers have called for the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of non-violent Americans while claiming that prison serves as a moral corrective, a forceful stick to keep drugs users from relapse and as a moral lesson to others. Nearly half a million Americans are currently behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.
“Bill Bennett wouldn’t choose the threat of jail to keep himself away from the casino,” added Nadelmann. “You can bet on that.”