Reefer (prohibition) madness

Today is April 20, or, put numerically, 4/20. Those three digits have become a code for marijuana, as in …

At the risk of violating the maxim that you should write about what you know (because I have never inhaled — on the other hand, I’ve never owned a Corvette but I write about Corvettes), today seems an appropriate day for discussing the wacky weed, because it’s yet another example of the stupidity of our government, for a variety of reasons.

I wandered into the marijuana legalization debate at Marketplace Magazine in 2010 (not on April 20) after reading a debate of sorts between Jay Selthofner, who ran for the 41st Assembly District as an independent that year, and Ripon Commonwealth Press publisher Tim Lyke.

It started with an observation from Washington Post columnist George F. Will:

Daniel Okrent’s darkly hilarious Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition recounts how Americans abolished a widely exercised private right — and condemned the nation’s fifth-largest industry — in order to make the nation more heavenly. Then all hell broke loose. Now that ambitious government is again hell-bent on improving Americans — from how they use salt to what light bulbs they use — Okrent’s book is a timely tutorial on the law of unintended consequences. …

Women campaigning for sobriety did not intend to give rise to the income tax, plea bargaining, a nationwide crime syndicate, Las Vegas, NASCAR (country boys outrunning government agents), a redefined role for the federal government and a privacy right — the “right to be let alone” — that eventually was extended to abortion rights. But they did. …

Before the 18th Amendment could make drink illegal, the 16th Amendment had to make the income tax legal. It was needed because by 1910 alcohol taxes were 30 percent of federal revenue. …

After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by “social nullification” — a tide of alcohol — and by the exertions of wealthy people, such as Pierre S. du Pont, who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.) …

The many lessons of Okrent’s story include: In the fight between law and appetite, bet on appetite. And: Americans then were, and let us hope still are, magnificently ungovernable by elected nuisances.

Selthofner, an advocate for legalizing marijuana, ran in 2010 on a platform of legalizing hemp cannabis, better known as marijuana, for various uses, not all of them recreational.

To that, Lyke responded:

He argues that pot growers could help the state economically while reducing reliance on fossil fuels, comforting patients with medical marijuana and “provid[ing] a safer choice than alcohol.”

On that last argument Selthofner appears most vulnerable.

One could reasonably ask him: “What are you smoking?”

The last thing this country needs is another mind-altering drug injested for recreational purposes. …

This is no time to get high or get drunk.

It’s time to get serious.

Selthofner argues that “we need to decriminalize marijuana for personal recreational use by responsible adults, in the interest of fairness, personal freedom and compassion.”

Note the contradiction in the sentence above; Responsible adults don’t smoke marijuana recreationally.

They’re too busy trying to earn a living, raise a family and serve as a role models for children they raise to believe that the world already offers more than enough behavioral diversions. …

The last thing Wisconsin residents need to do in the face of growing concerns is to escape by themselves in a cloud of marijuana smoke.

Is it too unreasonable to suggest that we owe it to ourselves, if not our children, to act in ways that are more, not less, mature, responsible and sober?

Which prompted a response from Selthofner’s campaign treasurer:

… I do not believe that fear gives us the right to take rights away from people who have not personally done anything harmful to our society, to other citizens, or to themselves.

It is possible for a recreational or medical marijuana smoker to be a productive and hard working member of society. Just like all drinkers are not drunk drivers, all cannabis users are not lazy people.

I think it’s quite unfair to paint all marijuana users with the same brush.

The letter went on to make arguments without any proof (more of which can be read in the first comment here) that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and “has caused zero deaths, ever.” That assertion has been made by legalization advocates for years without convincing evidence (realizing that proving a negative isn’t easy). News media throughout Wisconsin reported earlier this year that the Ripon College student who drowned in Oshkosh Jan. 8 had both alcohol and marijuana in his system when he died.

On the other hand, Lyke’s sentence that “Responsible adults don’t smoke marijuana recreationally” could have substituted for “smoke marijuana” the words “drink alcohol,” “use tobacco,” “eat fattening foods,” “watch TV,” “go to movies,” or any other number of non-productive recreational activities. Those and other activities and substances are diversions, momentary escapes from our present, responsible lives. Those escapes, legal  or otherwise, illicit or otherwise, have existed as long as human beings have existed.

(Reading Lyke’s column nearly two years later, it occurs to a reader that instead of writing an editorial plea for absolute sobriety, a more interesting question for the publisher of the state’s Newspaper of the Year might be to editorially ponder whether and to what extent Americans have lost their coping skills over the years.)

The better arguments for legalization are based not on alleged benefits, but on individual personal freedom. Those arguments were expressed in a later letter to the editor from a “former drug and homicide prosecutor” in Chicago:

Drug prohibition is the most effective means to put more drugs everywhere — stronger drugs, dangerous, uncontrolled and unregulated drugs. The irony of prohibition is that it makes drugs more valuable, more available, less controlled, stronger and more harmful. …

How’s prohibition helping the sober among us? With prohibition, we seize drugs by the ton and prosecute drugs by the gram. [Foolhardy] and bankrupting.

… Counter-intuitive as it may seem, Wisconsinites must legalize drugs to fight drugs, gangs, cartels, crime, prisons, taxes, deficits, corruption, trade imbalance and the funding of terrorism. …

The ex-prosecutor was right in that his argument did, and does, seem counterintuitive. I’ve read numerous arguments for legalizing and taxing drugs that presently are illegal. You’ll note that organized crime still exists today, 80 years after the end of Prohibition. You may also notice that a similar organized-crime structure has appeared around illegal drugs.

Moreover, it seems cruel (but hardly surprising) for the government to ban medical marijuana. Regardless of how you feel about pot use yourself, only the clueless or the sadistic or the authoritarian would claim that those who are using pot for relief of symptoms of terminal or chronic medical conditions are contributing to the problems of drug abuse.

It may blow your mind to know that, according to the Cato Institute, legalizing marijuana would save $3.3 billion in reduced law enforcement spending while generating up to $5.8 billion in new tax revenue. Cato further estimated that legalizing all drugs would net the government (between law enforcement savings and tax revenues) $46.8 billion per year. In contrast, the Buffett Rule was estimated to raise $5.1 billion.

The counterargument to the tax argument is that, as we are seeing with tobacco taxes, taxes that are too high encourage smuggling and other ways to avoid said high taxes. (See Will’s NASCAR reference.) On the other hand, that’s never stopped the government from creating taxes and setting tax rates before now.

Will himself seems sympathetic to drug legalization (and I’m guessing not to legitimize his own recreational activities):

Twenty percent of American drinkers consume 80 percent of the alcohol sold here. The same 80-20 split obtains among users of illicit drugs.

About 3 million people — less than 1 percent of America’s population — consume 80 percent of illegal hard drugs. Drug-trafficking organizations can be most efficiently injured by changing the behavior of the 20 percent of heavy users, and we are learning how to do so. Reducing consumption by the 80 percent of casual users will not substantially reduce the northward flow of drugs or the southward flow of money. …

In Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, policy analysts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken argue that imprisoning low-ranking street-corner dealers is pointless: A $200 transaction can cost society $100,000 for a three-year sentence. And imprisoning large numbers of dealers produces an army of people who, emerging from prison with blighted employment prospects, can only deal drugs. Which is why, although a few years ago Washington, D.C., dealers earned an average of $30 an hour, today they earn less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25).

Dealers, a.k.a. “pushers,” have almost nothing to do with initiating drug use by future addicts; almost every user starts when given drugs by a friend, sibling or acquaintance. There is a staggering disparity between the trivial sums earned by dealers who connect the cartels to the cartels’ customers and the huge sums trying to slow the flow of drugs to those street-level dealers. …

Sixteen states and the District have legalized “medical marijuana,” a messy, mendacious semi-legalization that breeds cynicism regarding law. In 1990, 24 percent of Americans supported full legalization. Today, 50 percent do. In 2010, in California, where one-eighth of Americans live, 46 percent of voters supported legalization, and some opponents were marijuana growers who like the profits they make from prohibition of their product.

The best argument for legalizing at least marijuana may be Will’s last point about “cynicism regarding law.” Two of the criteria for what constitutes a bad law are the extent to which the law is unenforceable, and the excessive cost (financial and otherwise) of enforcing the law in question. (There is something seriously wrong with society’s being stuck with a $100,000 bill for three years of prison for a $200 drug deal.) You need not be a buddy of Jeff Spicoli or assert that the police and the Gestapo are indistinguishable from each other to conclude that laws against marijuana possession violate both of those criteria. (Increasing the drinking age has served only to increase underage drinking, and banning texting while driving has not stopped texting while driving.)

I am sure that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will bring up drug legalization during their presidential campaign. I feel safe in assuming that Romney’s personal experience with marijuana is the same as mine. Obama has admitted to using more than just marijuana. Regardless of Obama’s past experience with controlled substances, the Obama administration has been an across-the-board civil liberties disaster, perhaps to the surprise of many who voted for Obama four years ago.

It is hypocritical to have laws that you don’t plan to enforce or cannot enforce. It’s obvious that the illegality of marijuana hasn’t stopped its fans from buying it and using it. Marijuana should have the same status as other supposedly-bad-for-you substances — until you do something harmful or illegal under the influence, your being under the influence isn’t the government’s business.

I know people who use the devil weed, but I can’t say I’ve ever been interested in partaking. But one need not be a fan of recreational drugs to notice similarities between the drug war of today and Prohibition 90 years ago.

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