Commentary Magazine


Topic: Prohibition

Which Is the Lesser of the Evils?

Colorado legalized the selling of marijuana beginning January 1 and the punditocracy largely does not approve. David Brooks of the New York Times writes that “In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post writes “widespread legalization is a bad idea, if an inevitable development. Washington state will be the next to light up, in a few months. A measure is heading to the ballot in Alaska this year, along with measures in Oregon and California. As with gambling — also a bad idea, by the way — more states are certain to feel the peer pressure for tax dollars and tourist revenue.”

I’m not an advocate for pot. I think that, unlike alcohol in moderation, it makes you stupid while giving you the illusion of being brilliant. And it surely must be bad for one’s health. Sucking smoke into your lungs has a pretty bad track record in that regard after all.

But unlike Brooks and Marcus, I’m not opposed to its legalization. I would state as a general principle that it is a bad idea to forbid what the government cannot substantially prevent and which a substantial portion of the population has no moral objection to. We should have learned this lesson with Prohibition, which was supposed to get rid of demon rum and gave us Al Capone instead.

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Colorado legalized the selling of marijuana beginning January 1 and the punditocracy largely does not approve. David Brooks of the New York Times writes that “In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post writes “widespread legalization is a bad idea, if an inevitable development. Washington state will be the next to light up, in a few months. A measure is heading to the ballot in Alaska this year, along with measures in Oregon and California. As with gambling — also a bad idea, by the way — more states are certain to feel the peer pressure for tax dollars and tourist revenue.”

I’m not an advocate for pot. I think that, unlike alcohol in moderation, it makes you stupid while giving you the illusion of being brilliant. And it surely must be bad for one’s health. Sucking smoke into your lungs has a pretty bad track record in that regard after all.

But unlike Brooks and Marcus, I’m not opposed to its legalization. I would state as a general principle that it is a bad idea to forbid what the government cannot substantially prevent and which a substantial portion of the population has no moral objection to. We should have learned this lesson with Prohibition, which was supposed to get rid of demon rum and gave us Al Capone instead.

When something with a large market is outlawed, entrepreneurs will try to tap into the huge profit premium produced by its being illegal and they will succeed in doing so. And unlike hard drugs and alcohol, marijuana can be easily grown nearly anywhere in the country and requires minimal industrial processing. It is already about as hard to obtain as Coca-Cola. Any commercial disputes those entrepreneurs have will be settled in parking lots with guns, not court rooms with lawyers. Tax money will be spent trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress an illegal product instead of being earned taxing a legal one.

So now, because the states can be the “laboratories of democracy,” we’re going to have an experiment. As the Wall Street Journal wrote this morning, “Colorado and Washington voters may come to regret their decision if they notice a surge in drug use, or more violence, or a generation of underdeveloped young people. Legalization, once achieved, will be hard to reverse. Better, then, to let Colorado go first, and watch what happens.”

We are about to find out which is the lesser of the evils, legal or illegal marijuana.

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Responding to Joe Klein on Drug Legalization

Earlier this week I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing drug legalization. In response, TIME magazine’s Joe Klein, who favors it, has written a dissent, critical but serious, which you can read here. Some responses to Klein follow:

1. “Most of [Wehner’s] arguments against dope come from a different era. He assumes a bright line between alcohol and ‘drugs.’ He assumes that marijuana is the entry drug on an inevitable path toward addiction. (He also seems to infer that marijuana is addictive.) Most of these arguments seem ridiculous to anyone who has inhaled.”

What I actually argue is a bit more nuanced and up-to-date than Klein’s characterization, and my claims happen to be true. Marijuana is much more potent than in the past. (In the 1970s, marijuana was at most 2-3 percent tetrahydrocanabinol, or THC. Recent Drug Enforcement Agency seizures were 7-10 percent. In Colorado and California, the marijuana dispensaries go as high as 15-20 percent or more.) Heavy use of marijuana does adversely affect brain development in the young. And the vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs start by using marijuana.

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Earlier this week I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing drug legalization. In response, TIME magazine’s Joe Klein, who favors it, has written a dissent, critical but serious, which you can read here. Some responses to Klein follow:

1. “Most of [Wehner’s] arguments against dope come from a different era. He assumes a bright line between alcohol and ‘drugs.’ He assumes that marijuana is the entry drug on an inevitable path toward addiction. (He also seems to infer that marijuana is addictive.) Most of these arguments seem ridiculous to anyone who has inhaled.”

What I actually argue is a bit more nuanced and up-to-date than Klein’s characterization, and my claims happen to be true. Marijuana is much more potent than in the past. (In the 1970s, marijuana was at most 2-3 percent tetrahydrocanabinol, or THC. Recent Drug Enforcement Agency seizures were 7-10 percent. In Colorado and California, the marijuana dispensaries go as high as 15-20 percent or more.) Heavy use of marijuana does adversely affect brain development in the young. And the vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs start by using marijuana.

2. Does this mean that everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted to drugs like heroin and cocaine? Of course not. But it does mean that most of those who are addicted to cocaine and heroin started out by using marijuana. This hardly seems coincidental. Nor is there any credible evidence that I’m aware of that supports Klein’s sweeping claim that “Those who move on to harder drugs—and the infinitesimal minority who get hooked on harder drugs—would do so if marijuana were legal or not.”

Think about it like this: Some appreciable percentage of the population has a susceptibility to addiction (genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction). Under legalization, the pool of those exposed to marijuana will certainly increase by a significant factor; and the result will be that the number of those at considerable risk of moving to addiction on heroin or cocaine likewise grows.

Government surveys found that of those age 12 and above, 22.5 million were current illicit drug users (18.1 million of whom used marijuana) and 133.4 million were current users of alcohol. More than 20 million of these people suffered from dependence or abuse: 14.1 million for alcohol alone, 3.9 million for drugs alone, and 2.6 million for drugs and alcohol.

What can we reasonably expect the drug problem to look like if we increase the number of illicit drug users to, say, 50-60 million? You will get significantly more addiction–and significantly more shattered lives.

3. We know from Monitoring the Future studies, conducted by the University of Michigan since 1975, that the rate of marijuana use in youths is inversely related to “perceived risk” and “perceived social disapproval.” Legalization would lead to decreased perceived risk and decreased perceived social disapproval; the result would almost certainly be greater drug use. (See Figure 1 from this article by Drs. Herb Kleber and Robert DuPont.) On the flip side, treating drugs as unlawful acts as a deterrent, which is one reason we criminalize behavior in the first place.

4. Many legalizers assume that past efforts to reduce drug use have been failures. But the assumption is flawed. For example, William Bennett was President George H.W. Bush’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Under his strong leadership, we saw substantial decreases in overall drug use, adolescent drug use, occasional and frequent cocaine use, and drug-related medical emergencies. Student attitudes toward drug use hardened. In fact, the two-year goals that were laid out in Bennett’s first ONDCP strategy were exceeded in every category.

John Walters, who was President George W. Bush’s “drug czar,” also experienced impressive success during his tenure. Anti-drug policies have shown far more success than, to take just one example, gun control laws. (Two different studies–this one by the Centers for Disease Control, which reviewed 51 published studies about the effectiveness of eight types of gun-control laws, and this one by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine–found that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective.)

5. Several times Klein compares marijuana to alcohol, arguing that “it is simply illogical for alcohol to be legal and pot not.” The rejoinder is fairly obvious, and it goes like this: Alcohol has deep roots in America in ways that marijuana and other illegal drugs do not. I readily conceded that alcohol abuse is problematic and destroys many lives (estimates are that there are 80,000 alcohol-related deaths each year). The question is whether we want to compound this damage by increasing marijuana use as well. And to throw the argument back at Klein: Would he favor legalizing cocaine and heroin based on the argument that alcohol kills many more people than those two drugs do? Alcohol kills many more people than automatic weapons would if they were legalized. Does Klein therefore, in the name of an allegiance to logic, believe we should legalize ownership of M-16s? I rather doubt it.

Governing involves making prudential judgments that take into account complexities, nuances, and even inconsistencies in a polity’s views and attitudes. Human actions cannot be reduced to mathematical formulations. Edmund Burke’s discussion of “prejudice” in the context of his concerns with the French Enlightenment and its devotion to Reason are apposite here.

Where Klein and I do agree is that, in his words:

legalization of marijuana would compound the cascade of society toward unlimited individual rights—a trend that can be catastrophic if there isn’t a countervailing social emphasis on personal and civic responsibility. It might well accelerate the trend toward the couchification of American life; it certainly would not be a step toward the social rigor we’re going to need to compete in a global economy… if, in the mad dash toward pleasure and passivity, we lose track of our citizenship and the rigorous demands of a true working democracy, we may lose the social webbing that makes the pursuit of happiness possible.

Having found common ground with Joe Klein, New Democrat, I will happily pitch my tent there.

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Bloomberg’s War on Individual Freedom

Today New York City’s Board of Health approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and sugary drinks in many establishments. It is, as the New York Times pointed out, the first such law enacted in the country. The intent of this initiative pursued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg is to combat the epidemic of obesity in this country. But good intentions have always paved the road to hell or, more important, the path to tyranny. Bloomberg is right to say that New Yorkers ought to be watching their diets. He’s dead wrong in attempting to use the ubiquitous power of the state to impose his ideas about what they should be eating and drinking on them.

The mayor has said he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s right to drink as much soda as they want, but rather his goal is, as he said on the “Today” show, to “force you to understand” that what you are doing is wrong. But at the heart of the latest instance of the mayor’s attempt to become New York’s nanny-in-chief, is an idea put forward in the New York Times by one of his measure’s supporters. As filmmaker Casey Neistat wrote on Saturday, the issue is “that some people just aren’t responsible enough to feed themselves.” That is exactly the frame of reference of Bloomberg on this and all such measures where he and other do-gooders seek to govern the lives of fellow citizens. It is not that they oppose individual freedom per se but that they think the rest of us are too sick or too stupid to be allowed to exercise it freely.

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Today New York City’s Board of Health approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and sugary drinks in many establishments. It is, as the New York Times pointed out, the first such law enacted in the country. The intent of this initiative pursued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg is to combat the epidemic of obesity in this country. But good intentions have always paved the road to hell or, more important, the path to tyranny. Bloomberg is right to say that New Yorkers ought to be watching their diets. He’s dead wrong in attempting to use the ubiquitous power of the state to impose his ideas about what they should be eating and drinking on them.

The mayor has said he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s right to drink as much soda as they want, but rather his goal is, as he said on the “Today” show, to “force you to understand” that what you are doing is wrong. But at the heart of the latest instance of the mayor’s attempt to become New York’s nanny-in-chief, is an idea put forward in the New York Times by one of his measure’s supporters. As filmmaker Casey Neistat wrote on Saturday, the issue is “that some people just aren’t responsible enough to feed themselves.” That is exactly the frame of reference of Bloomberg on this and all such measures where he and other do-gooders seek to govern the lives of fellow citizens. It is not that they oppose individual freedom per se but that they think the rest of us are too sick or too stupid to be allowed to exercise it freely.

The justification presented for this unprecedented government interference in both commerce and individual behavior is that the public and the government bear much of the cost of the illnesses that derive from obesity. But the logic of this argument breaks down when you realize that such reasoning would allow government to interfere in just about any sphere of private behavior including procreation. That is exactly the point that the Communist regime in Beijing has given in defense of its tyrannical one-child policy and the forced abortions that are performed in order to enforce it.

One needn’t paint the billionaire mayor as a would-be totalitarian to understand that a government that can tell you how much soda to drink or fat to eat because the sugar in your super-sized cup will eventually cost it something is one that can, in theory, tell you to do or not do just anything else you can think of.

America’s grand experiment with do-gooder government early in the 20th century was no less well intentioned than that undertaken by Bloomberg and his food and drink police. Indeed, the prohibition of the sale of alcohol addressed a far more urgent health problem facing the nation then (and now) as well as one that cost it, even in that era of small government, a lot of money. But Americans soon learned that legislating personal choices in such a manner is always a colossal mistake that tells us more about our faults than our virtues.

Personal choices, such as the consumption of sugar, do not fall under any reasonable definition of government responsibility. However serious our obesity problem may be, it cannot be solved by government fiat. Indeed, it isn’t likely that there will be a single less fat person in New York because of Bloomberg’s power play. But there will be a little less individual freedom in the city and elsewhere if his noxious idea spreads. The issue here is freedom, not sugar or obesity. The damage from this infringement on the fundamental values that are the foundation of democracy will hurt us far more than the extra few ounces of soda that the mayor begrudges New York’s citizens.

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