30 March 2005

That other bogus war

    You waste my coin Sam, all you can
    To jail my fellow man
    For smoking all the noble weed
    You need much more than him
    You've been telling lies so long
    Some believe they're true
    So they close their eyes to things
    You have no right to do
    Just as soon as you are gone
    Hope will start to climb
    Please don't stay around too long
    You're wasting precious time
      Don't Step on the Grass, Sam
      by Steppenwolf
I had started this post a couple weeks ago, and forgot to finish it. We had watched a few episodes from Season Two of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. One of the episodes was about the war on drugs. I used to be fairly passionate about this issue, and this got me thinking again. Now I'll grant that in college, I may have had a slightly different motivation for questioning the laws that make certain intoxicants illegal. I'm older now and, like our president, I can be perfectly honest when I answer "no" to all the drug use questions on a security clearance questionaire. Despite this, I am still convinced our anti-drug laws are completely whacked.

Penn & Teller openned with a flashback to Prohibition. It's a popular and entirely appropriate precedent to cite. Prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol led to a huge criminal black market, poisonings from bad booze, and no real reduction in the consumption of alcohol. It was a complete failure. So you'd think we'd have learned. Well, we didn't learn from Vietnam, so what would we learn here?

Facts on P&T BS should be approached with caution. Like the people and organizations they debunk, P&T choose their interview subjects and footage carefully. That said, I think they had an easy case to make here. Just look at heroine. It is cheaper and more pure now than when Nancy Reagan first told kids to "Just say no." You can find similar statistics about other drugs to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the so-called war.

Then there's the crazy pot thing. This is where the anti-drug rhetoric really falls apart. If you look at deaths attributable to the drug, pot is safer than alcohol and tobacco. No one has ever overdosed, that's for sure. And then there's the medical marijuana. The anti-drug movement is unwilling to even admit that there may be a medical application, despite the mounting evidence that pot has helped AIDS patients and chemotherapy recipients curb the crippling nausea and keep some weight on.

It just kills me. Despite new evidence, new studies, new opionions from the AMA, whatever, most lawmakers and anti-drug activists are unwilling to consider the possibility of medical marijuana. They seem so pig-headed about it. It's as if they no longer care about the issue, but just don't want to be proven wrong.

Then there's hemp. A popular theory has William Randalf Hearst demonizing marijuana as a means of protecting his significant investments in manufacture of paper from wood pulp. I don't know if he's at the root of the laws against pot use. However, the articles he published and the paper mill stock he held are both a matter of record, so his motives were shady at best. In any event, here is a source of paper with a much smaller environmental impact that we refuse to explore. A new cash crop for farmers. Come on.

I know, I know, I'm talking crazy. To embrace legalization is polical suicide unless you're local politician in one of a select few states. It's easier to maintain the status quo here. Accept the conventional wisdom, despite its flaws. It would certainly kill a national campaign. Or would it? I don't know, and we never will, because no one would try.


Jeri said...

I have to chime in here. I did my time as a grad asst in public policy school for a prof who is an economist and specialist in crime/drug policy, which made me a pretty lucky person (hey, I could have had a job typing memos for the dean or teaching stats to first-years).

He and a former RAND colleague published a book called Drug War Heresies that is a comprehensive, definitive study of drug legalization/prohibition around the world. They also compare the prohibition of illegal drugs with the regimes for alcohol and cigarettes. It's a fascinating book, based on hard research and virtually free of demagoguery. It addresses a lot of the issues you raised.

Plus, it has a fantastic index that has been nominated for several awards (okay, I prepared the index, and...sigh...there are no Index Awards)

As I remember, the conclusions were in favor of depenalization for marijuana possession if not outright legalization. Basically depenalization means leaving the laws as they are, but not enforcing them and certainly not sending people to prison for possession. It was not in favor of legalizing coke or heroin--they're just too dangerous.

But he's done lots of research on the effect of drug enforcement. It fuels gang warfare in several ways. First of all, the risk involved makes drugs more expensive and more lucrative and hence more attractive to criminals. Second, the incarceration of low- and mid-level dealers in prison creates a perpetually unstable seller's market. The ones left behind on the "corner" fight it out (usually with guns) to move into the open spots. Violence drops dramatically once gangs have staked out their territory and the personnel situation is stable.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we should ignore the drug problem. People die every day from overdoses, drive-by shootings, etc. But the War on Drugs has failed miserably. And now after 9/11 no one in Washington even cares about it, even though it affects a lot more people (and a lot more broadly across the country) than terrorism.

Andrew said...

Cool. I'll try to check out the book (and it's amazing index).

I definitely agree that we should not ignore the drug problem. I've often heard it argued that we should take funds currently devoted to enforcement and reallocate them to treatment. I am in favor of that.

I think we need to de-criminalize posession, and maybe even first-offense distribution. Obviously, if you sell to minors, you should locked up. But maybe offer more mandatory treatment as an alternative to prision.

There's a whole personal responsibilty issue here. We are punishing people for what they do to themselves. I know that often drug use leads to other crime, but so does alocohol use. I have a hard time making drug use a crime in and of itself.

Andrew said...

My editor has just pointed out that I have committed one of the most heinous grammatical sins in my previous post: I used an apostrophe in the possessive form of it (typing "it's" instead of "its"). I must have been on drugs.

Jeri said...

You think that's bad? I said "incarceration of low- and mid-level drug dealers in prison".

As opposed to incarcerating them in...dairy barns?