Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition edited by Mitch
Earleywine (Oxford University Press) Marijuana use
continues to attract interest and fuel controversy. Big, green pot leaves have
adorned the covers of Time, National Review, and Forbes. Almost 100 million
Americans have tried marijuana at least once. Groups such as The National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana (NORML) and The Marijuana Policy
Project (MPP) have tens of thousands of members. Polls suggest that 70-80% of
Americans support medicinal marijuana. At least 11 U.S. states have experimented
with decriminalization and medical marijuana laws, with new initiatives
appearing each year. Meanwhile, other groups such as Partnership for a Drug Free
America and Mothers Against Drugs protest legalization. Clearly, debate about
marijuana policy shows no sign of abating.
In his earlier book, Understanding Marijuana, Mitch Earleywine forced researchers, policy makers, and citizens to avoid oversimplification, separate empirical findings from their interpretations, and understand that some things may be neither good nor evil. Pot Politics continues with these same themes, showing multiple perspectives from a variety of experts on an important problem with vast implications. The volume presents ethical, religious, economic, psychological, and political arguments for cannabis policies that range from prohibition to unrestricted legalization. By presenting a unique perspective on overlapping issues, each chapter demonstrates how even recognized experts draw markedly different conclusions from the same data. Some contributors evaluate policy by weighing the costs and benefits of control while others eschew policy by presenting moral arguments against our attempts at control.
After two generations, the current fight against marijuana is as controversial as ever. One thing's for sure, however. It's not really working. A hundred million Americans have tried pot. It's easier for kids to get marijuana than it is to get beer or cigarettes.
To read Earleywine's new book on the illogic of America's marijuana policy is to wonder what these politicians could possibly be smoking to continue to promulgate such a wasteful, counterproductive, even self-defeating approach. Earleywine makes no bones about it. In Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition he lays out a reasoned, thoughtful argument for legalization. Earleywine, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Albany, makes a compelling case that by continuing prohibition our government is actually abandoning its role of protecting youth from
access to marijuana—rather than fulfilling it. It's an interesting argument and it goes like this: one of the government's primary duties is to tax and regulate commerce. By supporting prohibition and abandoning its duty to tax and regulate the billions of dollars a year spent on pot, our government reinforces an unregulated market with no age limit for the purchase of marijuana, no licensing requirements for sellers, no established hours of business, no identification card system or training for retail distributors, no means to regulate potency, and no ability to enforce product quality control and purity. The cost for all this chaos? Nearly $8 billion in government expenditures at interdiction and control, $6.2 billion in lost tax revenue, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of man hours of productivity incurred by the adjudication and incarceration of nonviolent offenders of a policy doomed to fail in the first place.
"The illogic of America's pot policy—and its obvious solution—became stunningly clear to me one day while I was waiting in line for beer at a concert," explains Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of NORML and The NORML Foundation in the foreword to Earleywine's book. "I was . . . getting beer for myself and a friend. When I turned to leave I was approached by a kid clearly under the drinking age. He offered to trade me two joints for both of my beers. Then and there I understood the folly of America's pot policy. Here's a kid who can't get alcohol because it's taxed and regulated who has no problem whatsoever getting pot—precisely because it's not taxed and regulated." The power to tax, the argument goes, is the power to create or to destroy. Taxing and legally controlling marijuana would likely create a regulated system, similar to alcohol and tobacco which would deny children access to pot. It would destroy most of the social and health concerns associated with prohibition. And as a nice byproduct, it would generate billions of dollars in new revenue that could certainly be used for better purposes.
Marijuana policies have the potential to create benefits, but always at some sort of cost. Evaluating new ideas requires an assessment of current ones. Daniel Egan and Jeffrey Miron have examined modern estimates of the costs of enforcing current prohibitions. Although few policies can be reduced to dollars and cents, an economic approach to the expense of current laws can help us put alternative plans in perspective. These authors use conservative estimates of the price of law enforcement and find that removing penalties for marijuana sales and use would save billions of dollars' worth of time and effort for police officers, judges, attorneys, and corrections centers nationwide. They add that a taxed and regulated market (comparable to alcohol's or tobacco's) would have its own expenses but potentially could generate billions of tax dollars. The effect on use and associated problems is difficult to guess, but the severity of these is addressed later in this book, along with issues that are not purely economic.
Many citizens are concerned about testing for marijuana use under the current system of marijuana laws. Balancing privacy and the right to know who has used irresponsibly can prove confusing and difficult. Any discussion of relaxing prohibitions invariably leads to concern about the use of marijuana in dangerous settings, including some work conditions and on the road. Employers understandably want the most efficient, healthy, productive workforce that they can afford. But employees frequently assert that their use of marijuana during their free time need not alter the quality or quantity of their work. An outspoken few even suggest that their labor improves with occasional use outside the workplace, claiming that the relaxation and change of perspective can bring novel insights to difficult problems and renewed patience for difficult tasks.
Medical users typically express considerable concern and assert that relief from symptoms enhances productivity while the tolerance they develop to intoxication eliminates worries about impairment. In chapter 3, Sara Smucker Barnwell and Mitch Earleywine review data on workplace drug testing and find its expense and effect on morale make it less appealing than assessments based on job performance. Productivity can suffer for numerous reasons. Drug testing may lull employers into a false sense of security about their ability to identify employees whose work might suffer. In contrast, assessments based on performance are much more likely to identify the true problem: poor work.
The data on marijuana intoxication and driving are a bit of a mess, as Liguori details in chapter 4. Research seems quite clear, however, that when combined with alcohol, marijuana does alter driving in potentially dangerous ways. A clear separation between acute intoxication and previous use detected in tests of blood and urine is also essential. The current literature contains enough weaknesses to support a call for continued research. Liguori maps out the appropriate steps to make subsequent studies and experiments as informative as possible.
A close look at these economic issues related to the costs of prohibition, drug testing, and driving can improve discussions of alternative policies.
Quite a few Americans will assert, with great fervor, that there's no place like America. Citizens worldwide undoubtedly feel the same way about their own country. No one expects policy formed in one country to create identical results in another. Nevertheless, the experiments of other lands can inform our considerations of our own laws. Two areas that have employed marijuana laws different from our own, Australia and the Netherlands, have generated enough data over sufficient time to draw some interesting conclusions.
Australia contains territories with statutes replacing criminal penalties for marijuana possession with civil penalties. First offenders in all territories receive counseling and education. In a reasoned and nuanced look at the literature, Wayne Hall analyzes the arguments for and against changes in Australian laws. He reviews all the harms that marijuana creates and details all the negative consequences that arise from prohibition. He emphasizes that a strong rationale for marijuana prohibition requires more than evidence that marijuana creates problems. Prohibition is justified only if criminal penalties decrease the troubles that marijuana creates. Even then, the decrease must be large enough to justify the associated costs of enforcing these policies. He weighs the pros and cons of different approaches in a way that will give everyone, from the staunchest proponent to the staunchest opponent of prohibition, considerable pause.
Dutch marijuana policy has become infamous, notoriously misunderstood, and incredibly influential. Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Austria,
Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal, and England have all altered their laws in ways that seem influenced by the Netherlands, while other countries have stiffened penalties and criticized the approach. Craig Reinarman and Peter Cohen offer a detailed comparison of marijuana users in two comparable cities, San Francisco and Amsterdam. The cities differ dramatically in their approach to marijuana prohibition, and these researchers reveal that the laws may have dramatically less effect than more informal social controls within communities and cultures. Prohibition's effect on the use of hard drugs may also prove quite surprising.
Keen looks at other countries certainly have their limitations, but any informed discussion of marijuana policy undoubtedly turns to the experiences of those who have laws different from our own. As more countries experiment with new approaches to controlling access to marijuana, new data will help answer pressing questions on the balance between prohibition and problems.
The distance between our thoughts about reality and reality itself can grow quite vast. Policies about marijuana reflect our perceptions about the plant, its potential for harm and good, and the costs and benefits of different attempts to control it. The accuracy of these perceptions is almost always debatable. Subtle and not-so-subtle biases can creep into the reporting of facts from the marijuana literature. Some stem from simple choices of words; others arise from flagrant disregard of some data in favor of others.
The contentiousness of the marijuana debates has contributed to the way prohibitionists and reformers frame their arguments and present their data. One of the most accessible and persuasive sources of information is the media. Bruce Mirken reviews some salient examples of the way reporting can go awry. He questions the idea that alarming events are more newsworthy and therefore more likely to generate more consumers of media. In a sense, he argues that the lay public is more intelligent than many media sources think. Most readers are willing to appreciate nuanced arguments filled with complications and caveats, so there's no need to simplify any difficult literature. These oversimplifications have the potential to backfire if they contradict people's personal experience.
Roger Roffman and Anne Nicoll continue the theme. They emphasize that complete information on the potentially negative consequences of marijuana use is essential. They encourage anti-prohibitionists to take up this cause in an effort to increase their credibility. They argue that recreational users of marijuana show considerable interest in learning about the drug's safety. These recreational users might be particularly open to opponents of prohibition when learning new ways to make their use safer.
The question of addictiveness of marijuana has resulted in loud arguments about the plant's potential to lead users to consume when they would rather not. Laboratory work with animals has required some highly artificial circumstances to generate marijuana dependence, but work with humans has established an identifiable withdrawal syndrome. In an attempt to assess professional opinions on the topic, Robert Gore and Mitch Earleywine survey hundreds of mental health professionals. These experts rate marijuana's addictiveness as comparable with caffeine's. More importantly, their ratings parallel their own experiences and backgrounds in ways that should make us all wonder about how individual lenses can cloud perceptions.
Morality, ethics, and religion generate enough controversy, rage, and misunderstanding without involving drugs. Nevertheless, the war on drugs has created a great deal of rhetoric about morals and values. Many remember former drug czar William Bennett's unfalsifiable moral argument: "The simple fact is that drug use is wrong. And the moral argument, in the end, is the most compelling argument" (Bennett, 1991).
Unlike other topics in this volume, these issues do not lend themselves to empirical research. Some recurring themes in temperance and prohibition messages involve individual responsibility, the importance of economic success, the value of resisting peer pressure, the inherent need for parents to assure that children do not use drugs, and the value of a deity or higher power in building a meaningful life. Arguments against prohibition have comparable themes. Even the expressions that appear in descriptions of drug problems have a certain biblical tone. Words like "demonized," "pestilence," "plague," "scourge," "evil," and even "epidemic" have an Old Testament feel. Sorting though all of these issues as they relate to marijuana prohibition remains a difficult task.
Merely asking the question of how morals or religion relates to drugs can create plenty of trouble. The idea that drugs are evil has considerable support. Stereotypes of religion or morality often accompany stereotypes of abstinence. Questioning current drug policies on moral or religious grounds can lead to quick accusations of immorality or heresy. But the tacit assumption, that drugs, particularly marijuana, are inherently evil, requires
examination. Some moral arguments, as presented, become circular or simplistic. Many reduce to the idea that drugs are wrong because they are immoral and immoral because they are wrong.
Most ethicists like general principles. A general principle—an overarching idea that can apply to almost any situation—has intuitive appeal and practical utility. The notion that drugs are evil has been adopted by some as a general principle. Once accepted, this principle makes decisions about drug laws easy. If drugs are evil enough, then we should take steps to eliminate them. Policing should be thorough, punishments should be swift and severe, and few other issues should take priority over eliminating drugs.
It is often with these ideas in mind that many citizens ask reformers why marijuana laws should change. Douglas Husak puts the shoe of the prohibition argument on the other foot, asking why drug possession requires state-initiated punishment. Given the general principle that the severity of a punishment should fit the severity of the crime, what is the most appropriate penalty for marijuana possession?
Many support moral arguments with references to sacred texts. These kinds of appeals to authority can turn some people away; others argue that empirical work is simply another form of appeal to authority. Distinguishing between the words of a sacred text and their meaning has filled many big books. Anyone who wants to understand the logic of these arguments will find a fine example here. Elliot Dorff proceeds through biblical passages and commentary in an effort to distinguish between drug use and associated negative consequences. This process could apply to any sacred text, or any text for that matter. Readers may be particularly surprised to learn that the Bible may not say exactly what they thought. In subsequent chapters, Charles Thomas explains how religious movements, even those opposed to drug use, can still support new laws on marijuana for the good of the people. He also documents the varied approaches that different religions adopt.
Everyone on any side of the marijuana debate wants to see a bright future for the next generation, one that includes liberty and responsibility. Americans and most people worldwide are quite familiar with the idea that adults deserve freedoms and duties not granted to children. The fact that the word "minor" exists in our language reflects the idea. Current policies on ages for consent, trial as an adult, military service, driving, drinking, and a host of other behaviors reflect our repeated commitment to the idea that a certain level of development is required before enjoying certain privileges or taking on certain obligations. Critics of the notion that a specific chronological age will signify a set of appropriate abilities are numerous. Many find the different ages required for different rights and responsibilities ageist. Nevertheless, few would argue that everyone at every age has the skill to handle all the tasks stereotypically associated with adulthood. Resolving these issues would require, at the very least, an entire book in itself. Instead, these chapters focus on two key issues related to marijuana and considerations for policy.
The links between an early onset of use of most any drug and later troubles appears repeatedly in the research literature. Mary Ann Pentz and Steve Sussman provide a critical but optimistic view of current approaches to marijuana-abuse prevention. They note that a great many previous attempts to minimize the negative effects of drugs have met with unmitigated failure. Nevertheless, they describe key components of programs that can delay the onset of licit and illicit drug use. Prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists will likely find their words encouraging. Properly conducted drug-abuse prevention programs can be efficient, effective, relatively inexpensive, and respectful of the rights and intelligence of citizens who are too young to vote for alternatives.
Rodney Skager examines one of the most controversial issues in recent debates on medical marijuana. He takes a close look at data on teen attitudes and use in California after the passage of medical marijuana laws. Many have asserted that linking marijuana to medical illness could normalize the drug's use in teens' minds, thus suggesting to them that the drug must be harmless. He shows that empirical work does not support the idea, and tells an intriguing tale about how holding dearly to the idea of medical marijuana normalizing teen use, even in the face of contradictory evidence, has led to strange reactions to these data.
Kevin Sabet shows how a comparable look at the same data can serve as a basis for dramatically different arguments. His view of research reviewed here and in other chapters leads him to argue that marijuana is more harmful than many suggest. In contrast to the views of previous authors, he sees the connections between marijuana and respiratory problems, mental health, and addiction as reasonable justification for continued prohibition. He makes an important distinction between the number of marijuana arrests per year and the actual number of people arrested. He also emphasizes his view that prohibition has succeeded in keeping the prevalence of regular marijuana use far behind that of legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. He sees no problem with using the legal system or drug testing (when it is respectful of privacy) to motivate treatment. He also expresses strong views that a legal market in marijuana can be misinterpreted as tacit encouragement or as a message of harmlessness to youth.
Prohibitionists will find these arguments familiar; opponents of the drug war will see the point of view they're up against.
The idea that marijuana causes crime is laughable to anyone who has used it, including the millions of people who have tried the drug and never committed any other crime. The available research reveals that marijuana does not cause violent crime. Laboratory studies and epidemiological work confirm this finding again and again. Any association with other crimes probably arises because those who break the law while intoxicated are more likely to get caught (Pacula & Kilmer, 2004). It's not that people who are high commit crimes, it's that people who commit crimes and happen to be high are easier for police to apprehend.
Again, crime, by definition, is already illegal. Attempting to limit crime by prohibiting marijuana wastes time and effort because marijuana does not cause crime. If there are particular crimes that worry us most, let's increase their penalties rather than try to criminalize behaviors that are weakly correlated with them.
Given this evidence that marijuana causes little harm to most regular users and no harm to the people around them, the negative effect of marijuana possession appears too small to estimate. If we believe that the punishment should fit the crime, then there should be no punishment for owning a personal amount of marijuana.
Thus, if we value justice, we must remove penalties for possession of marijuana.
Truly valuing compassion and justice can lead us to legalize medical cannabis and remove penalties for possession of marijuana for personal use. A focus on some other values can lead to more dramatic changes. For example, a taxed, legal market for marijuana is consistent with the value of fiscal responsibility. Alternatively, a completely free market for marijuana is consistent with the value of liberty. But the United States may not be ready for such big steps. For now, let's focus on the fundamental values of compassion and justice; let's legalize medical marijuana and remove penalties for personal use. Religious, moral, and empirical arguments mandate these moves. Precedents from other countries offer further support. If we value justice and compassion, we must change marijuana policy.
insert content here