Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Impacts of Drug Use <<< The Impact of Being Arrested For Drug Use

Penn Jillette unloads on the Obama administration about the fact that he continues to support drug policies that lock people up for doing exactly what Obama admits to doing in his youth:
Do we believe, even for a second, that if Obama had been busted for marijuana -- under the laws that he condones -- would his life have been better? If Obama had been caught with the marijuana that he says he uses, and 'maybe a little blow'... if he had been busted under his laws, he would have done hard f*cking time. And if he had done time in prison, time in federal prison, time for his 'weed' and 'a little blow,' he would not be President of the United States of America. 
I think Jillette is right to note that relevant part about all this is not that there is hypocrisy in doing drugs yourself at one point and then maintaining the laws against drug use. People are hypocritical all the time, but that doesn't mean the right thing to do is abandon all laws. Even murderers wouldn't necessarily prefer to live in a society where murder was legal.

Few people call Obama on his hypocrisy, because I am certain that it's shared by millions of respectable middle class parents all around America. They smoked up in their youth, turned out just fine, and still dutifully turn up to the polling booths to keep marijuana illegal. They'll do this, all the while being ready to pull every string to keep their beloved child out of prison should they get unfortunately arrested for possession.

What's most striking is the sheer casualness with which the upper classes will admit to their former drug use. Obama did weed and 'maybe a little blow' (as if one might forget whether one had done blow). Bill Clinton smoked but didn't inhale. George W. Bush did 'young and foolish things when he was young and foolish', which I'm sure amounts to the same thing, if just in euphemistic form. He certainly didn't seem any more repentant than the rest.

What these statements really reveal is that our elected leaders are essentially admitting that the problem with drugs is not actually using them, but getting arrested and convicted for using them. Smoke some weed as a teenager and you'll probably turn out just fine. Get convicted for smoking some weed as a teenager and you may not.

And isn't this exactly saying that the real problems for users of marijuana are the ones created by making it illegal?

It's also sharing in the joke that enforcement is so random and sporadic that they're not even worried about admitting to what amounts to a federal crime. There's a strange gentleman's agreement that we never prosecute admissions for former drug use, if only because we'd have more prisoners than free citizens if everyone who'd ever smoked pot were to be locked up.

Now, it's not the case that extremely harsh but seldomly enforced punishments are always bad public policy. This is the Gary Becker theory of rational deterrence - you need punishments to be harsher if the probability of being caught is low, but the social harm is high, so that deterrence is strong.

Back in medieval times, things like highway robbery and horse stealing always got extremely harsh punishments. Not because they were the most repugnant crimes, but because they were committed frequently, the cost of allowing them was very high, and the punishment needed to be very nasty to encourage people not to do them.

But here's the question - can you imagine people at the time jokingly admitting in their memoirs that they'd been horse thieves and highway robbers? Of course not - they'd be hanged immediately. And that's because highway robbery was a serious social problem that the authorities were taking serious steps to try to remedy, even if they would offend our current sensibilities.

By this metric, marijuana is definitively not a serious social problem. People are happy having ridiculously harsh punishments that ruin lots of people's lives, confident that as long as they don't get caught at the time, enforcement is so lax that they can joke about it in public. It's a farce, but it's not a funny farce.

I have never, never, heard a coherent public policy rationale for why alcohol should be legal and marijuana should be illegal. Like Penn Jillette, I don't partake in either, so I have no dog in this fight personally.

But ruinous social policy is everybody's concern. It's a sick joke, and it's time to end it.

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