This week, the Huffington Post is doing a feature called “Shadow Convention” where they address topics that neither the Democratic nor Republican conventions will address. Today they took a look at the War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs and my one non-pot-smoking friend Dr. Kevin Sabet appeared like Punxsatawney Phil on Groundhog Day to see his shadow and declare six more years of Drug War. And like the movie Groundhog Day, the repetition of his fallacious anti-legalization arguments is beginning to sound like the opening to I Got You, Babe by Sonny & Cher. Let’s relive some of the classics:
A balanced and nuanced approach based on evidence, common sense, public health and public safety has been shown to produce results.
The Obama Administration’s drug war budget is still tilted two-to-one in favor of interdiction and incarceration over treatment and rehabilitation, just as it was during the George W. Bush Administration. (Speaking of Groundhog Day, have you noticed how much Bush’s DEA Administrator looks like Obama’s?)
(a) Community-based prevention that focuses not only on preventing drug use among school kids, but also on changing ill-conceived local laws and ordinances that promote underage drinking, smoking and marijuana use (so-called “environmental policies”);
You mean like drug testing 11-year-olds for the school orchestra? Maintaining school policies that punish underage marijuana use worse than underage drinking, thus promoting use of a more harmful substance? Cancelling student aid for college kids who get caught with a joint? And since pot smoking among kids is now more prevalent than tobacco smoking, and tobacco’s highly addictive and available to eighteen-year-olds legally, why didn’t we have to lock up adult cigarette smokers in cages to achieve the drop in lifetime tobacco smoking for youth from the high 70-percents to the low 40-percents?
(b) Early intervention and detection of drug use in health settings – after all, prescription drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in this country, and health professionals need to be better equipped to deal with this epidemic;
What could better help alleviate the prescription drug overdose epidemic than allowing many of those patients to treat their conditions with non-toxic medical marijuana that is incapable of producing an overdose? Surveys show that medical marijuana patients are able to reduce or eliminate most of their prescription med needs and studies show that cannabinoids have a synergistic effect with opioids to better reduce pain with less drugs.
I’m all for helping addicts. My dad was a speed addict and alcoholic whose life was saved by in-patient residential detox and treatment and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s why I’m furious that the scarce resource of rehab beds is wasted on the 57% of marijuana smokers who are only in rehab because they got caught with marijuana, and that 37% of all marijuana smokers admitted to rehab hadn’t even smoked pot in thirty days.
(d) Recovery-based policies that don’t penalize people for past drug use and instead facilitate full and productive participation in society;
In the state of Florida, if you are caught with three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana, you have committed a felony. You will do five years of time in prison, mandatory, where you will have no participation in society, aside from working at slave wages for American corporations. You lose your right to vote while in prison, on parole, on probation, and for at least five years after completing all of those, at which point you may begin to petition the state for your right to vote, which may or may not ever be restored to you. This situation has helped make it so almost a quarter (23.3%) of Florida’s voting-age African-American population cannot vote.
Along with potential loss of voting rights for life, you will be forced to check the “Have you been convicted of a crime?” checkbox on all job applications and every background or Google search on you will alert potential employers, landlords, universities, and friends and lovers that you are a drug felon. Unsurprisingly, many people in this situation turn to selling drugs or committing crime, leading them back into the private prison profit ledgers.
So, if you are going to change to “recovery-based policies”, maybe you should start with Florida and consider whether smoking weed is heinous enough to merit this level of attention.
(e) Smart law enforcement that combines credible threats with modest sanctions. Through drug courts, for example, offenders are offered the chance to get their record cleared if they successfully complete treatment. Through testing and sanctions programs, probation violators are given modest jail stays that are swift and certain, rather than uncertain, distant, and severe. Such measures have yielded stellar results in localities where they’ve been implemented: less crime, lower rates of recidivism and substantial cost savings.
The panacea of drug courts is not what Dr. Sabet wants you to think it is. It sounds good – give drug users a shot at rehab instead of prison. But even ignoring my points above about so many pot smokers not needing to be in rehab, drug courts often leave the person worse-off than if they’d accepted their original prison sentence. These stats about “swift and certain” jail stays are padded by the fact that so many of the people being rehabbed don’t have a problem in the first place! If you catch an occasional pot smoker, force him into a bunch of rehab classes, test his pee on a random basis with the threat of jail if he fails, he’ll just abstain from pot, jump through your hoops, and the minute he’s free from rehab he’ll smoke a joint to celebrate – trust me, from too many first-hand accounts to mention.
Research uniformly reveals that under legalization, the price of drugs would fall substantially, thereby increasing consumption. Any taxes gained on legal drugs would be quickly offset by the social costs resulting from this increased use: witness how today society receives about $1 in alcohol and tobacco tax revenue for every $10 lost on the social costs of those two legal drugs. Increased drug use means increased costs, including those borne by American businesses as they deal with a high workforce, greater absenteeism and less productivity.
Seriously, Kevin, the whole “The Legal Drugs Are Awful!” reasoning isn’t even fooling the squares anymore. We all understand that alcohol and tobacco are toxic and addictive. The social costs from tobacco owe to huge health care costs for lung cancer and other diseases. The social costs from alcohol owe to health care costs from alcoholism as well as social mayhem costs from drunk driving and drunk assaults and murders.
However, a Canadian study shows the social per-user costs of alcohol to be eight times greater and tobacco to be forty times greater than the costs of a cannabis consumer. Where a smoker cost Canada $800 and a drinker cost $165, a toker cost only $20. So whatever tokers cost America, we’re bearing that cost now with absolutely no tax revenues to offset it. Bringing in some tax revenue combined with savings in law enforcement / court / prison expenditures could reap billions and more than offset any trivial social costs from marijuana use.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that drug legalization would significantly diminish the underground market. In a legal market, where drugs are taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the legal (taxed) market price would leave cartels with a handsome profit. Drug legalization would also do nothing to loosen the cartels’ grip on other illegal trades such as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and piracy.
Hmm, drug cartels make money on human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and piracy, so let’s continue to allow them to dominate the marijuana market as well. I don’t care how much or how little it may or may not affect the cartels’ business model, I don’t understand why we give torturing kidnapping Mexican extortionist pirate terrorist organizations any profit from marijuana.
Where drugs are taxed and regulated, there is a gray market for those who’ll undercut the tax and regulations. We see that in Manhattan, where profiteers transport van-loads of low-taxed North Carolina cigarettes to sell on the street corner. We see that in Canada, where Americans cross the border to get cheaper prescription drugs. In my state of Oregon, many Washingtonians cross into Portland to shop with no state sales tax. But the reason cartels are in power is because they can take the risk and exercise the brutality necessary to prosper in a prohibition market. When pot is legal to grow for personal use and sold with reasonable taxation, Mexican cartels are forced to play by the same business rules as American entrepreneurs, and the Mexicans can’t win in that environment.
What about criminal justice costs? Wouldn’t legalization at least decrease these? Surprisingly, legal drugs — especially alcohol – cause more arrests every year than illegal ones. Legal drugs are more available and therefore more abused. Driving while intoxicated, public drunkenness, and liquor law violations result in over 2.5 million arrests every year. That isn’t to say that current drug policies are not costly to the criminal justice system. They are. But that is precisely why we need smarter enforcement policies — not legalization, which would likely compound current costs.
Once again, alcohol is a toxic and addictive drug which causes in its users insanity, criminality, and death. Of course there are more liquor law violations leading to arrest, because we arrest kids that try to use fake IDs, store clerks who sell to minors, bars that don’t card, and people who are drinking where they shouldn’t be. Oh, and because alcohol is the most popular drug in the country, with about three-quarters of all high school seniors trying it at least once. If marijuana legalization leads to another 850,000 arrests a year and, therefore, no cost savings, at least those arrests would be for people violating the law regarding supplying to minors, driving under the influence, or behaving in a criminal way that affects others – not merely possessing marijuana.
If Dr. Sabet’s reasoning makes your head hurt, try working through it backwards. He says legalization of marijuana would increase abuse, thereby increasing arrests, thereby leading to more costs. So, then, if we went returned to a strict new alcohol prohibition where anyone caught with a beer can be arrested and jailed, fewer people would abuse alcohol, we’d make fewer arrests for alcohol, and we’d have lower criminal justice costs for alcohol.
If that doesn’t work, whenever Dr. Sabet finishes a paragraph, just append one of the following taglines, as appropriate:
- …and that’s why the government needs to lock me up in a cage for smoking a joint on my back porch!
- …and that’s why we need to make alcohol and tobacco Schedule I drugs!
- …and since legal alcohol and tobacco are so toxic and addictive, that’s why we need to ban non-toxic, low-side-effect marijuana!