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Legalization can be a very complicated subject to discuss and it would be almost impossible for any individual to be completely prepared, current and credible on all the aspects of the legalization issue. Also, it's one thing to make your presentation effectively when you're the only speaker of the evening, quite another to come off looking good when equal time goes to someone speaking in favor of legalization--especially if that person is a pro at public debate.

No matter what the setting, we recommend couching your message in affirmative terms because legalization is about drugs and drugs are as controversial a topic as any facing the American people. Many times, even those listeners who have no sympathy for the idea of legalization might say, for instance, "Can't we do better somehow than we're doing now about our drug problems?" The answer is surely yes. This question, by the way, provides an opportunity for you to remind all the people in the seats that they must help deal with the problem. It is your chance to ask them: Do you know about the demand reduction and prevention solutions at work in your community? In your neighborhood, in the schools, in job training and workplace settings, in jails and in treatment and prevention centers? What do you do now and what are you willing to do? How much are you prepared to spend to make it better?

The discussion can and usually will touch on several areas of scholarship: medical science, the behavioral and social sciences, law and criminal justice, economics, international matters, and historical and cross-cultural analysis. While it is not necessary to be a specialist in all the disciplines, it is wise to be knowledgeable and comfortable with some essential questions and answers.

Arguments in favor of legalization, as mentioned earlier, often draw overly broad conclusions from limited data or research, rely on hypothetical arguments and lean heavily on research that is outdated, discredited or "uncredited," meaning that it hasn't been subjected to rigorous review by the researcher's colleagues prior to publication.

Not all discussions of legalization issues take place in formal or structured settings. Frequently, questions are raised in the course of presentations on other subjects, often in the context of discussions such as "Can we really stop the flow of drugs in the United States?" The answers you provide to these inquiries may be even more important and persuasive than your views offered in a debate setting because they are specific and direct and may occur in one-on-one situations.

Some Do's and Don'ts

Do insist that proponents define what they mean by legalization: what drugs will be legalized, age limits, who regulates, who distributes, etc.

Don't assume the defensive position. Always remember the burden of proof is on the proponents of legalization. They are the ones suggesting that access to drugs be drastically increased.

Do maintain credibility. That is, if a point can't be refuted, admit it.

Do stick to the point.

Don't get bogged down in side issues, such as the needle exchange program, the medical use of marijuana, and the emerging issue of cultivation of hemp.

Do remind audiences that during the early part of the 20th Century, the United States struggled with the consequences of legalized drugs and concluded that the costs to society were far too great. The historical record is a valuable lesson to those contemplating legalization.

Do insist that the debate be defined to allow questions to be asked of advocates.

Invitations: Handle With Care

When invitations to participate in discussions about the legalization of drugs or to make formal presentations are received, responses will need to be consistent and clear. One approach is to accept such invitations only as part of an interdisciplinary team, perhaps one law enforcement person, one medical-scientific person and one grassroots prevention person. But the inviting group may specify that it wants only one spokesman for the anti-legalization viewpoint and that there will be a legalization proponent speaking for the other side of the question. You may be asked to discuss the drug issue with no specific reference to the legalization issue. Be prepared anyway. Whether the format is one-on-one or team versus team, before you say yes you should insist on answers to some questions about ground rules. The answers to these questions should be requested and received in writing.

* What is the format for the discussion and how long will it be?

* Who will be the pro-legalization speaker, if there is to be one?

* What is this person's background? Has she or he published anything on the drug legalization question?

* Will speakers be permitted to interrupt one another?

* Will there be a moderator? Who? Is the moderator impartial?

* Will there be questions from the audience?

* Is a specific legalization proposal being forwarded and, if so, what is it? If there is no specific proposal being presented, what is the general purpose of the discussion?

* Who will be in the audience? Will the speaker be permitted to invite others to attend?

The answers to these questions will influence your decision to accept or decline the invitation. If you decide to go ahead, they should also affect planning for participation. If these questions cannot be answered or if the inviter is not willing to commit the answers to paper, the invitation should either be declined or all parties should be well aware that they are entering the unknown.

Bear in mind that even a sponsoring group that is neutral may just be looking for a way to fill up a program. They may look on a legalization debate as entertainment--the rowdier the better. If that is so, and the proposed discussion is merely a device to get an overworked program chairman off the hook, or get the organization some publicity, you would probably be wise to reject the invitation. Your experience should be sufficient to enable you to decide whether the inviters are serious. If they are, they won't object to your list of questions, because the questions show that you are serious too. And they will give your suggestions for changes in format, if any, a respectful hearing.

From the DEA

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