Commentary Magazine


Topic: war on drugs

The Nanny State Exception: Legal Pot

In yet another indication of the sea change in American culture, President Obama’s comments in a New Yorker interview endorsing legalization of marijuana shocked no one and generated little negative response. Of course, the public is well aware of the president’s personal history with the drug since he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father of smoking it frequently as a youngster, as well as using cocaine in high school and college. But there’s little doubt that the lack of any outrage at his statement about legalization reflects a shift toward more libertarian views on social issues. Indeed, a CBS poll released today indicates that for the first time, a majority of Americans now think pot should be legal.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of repeated use of the drug. Yet most Americans seem to agree with the president that it is no worse than cigarettes and perhaps less dangerous than alcohol. While the 51 percent who now back legalization may not have fully thought out the impact on society of allowing pot into the mainstream, there’s little doubt that the war on drugs to which so much police effort is devoted is unpopular.

But one other aspect of the issue that few have pondered is the liberal hypocrisy that the emerging consensus about legal pot has illuminated. As William Bennett and Christopher Beach pointed out in an incisive Politico magazine article today, there is a question that no one in the media is asking Obama or any other liberal advocate of opening the floodgates to more marijuana: Why do the same people that have sought to outlaw transfats and super-sized sodas while banishing cigarette smokers and seeking to criminalize anything else that can be branded as unhealthy think there’s nothing wrong with a measure that would almost certainly increase the amount of pot smoked in this country?

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In yet another indication of the sea change in American culture, President Obama’s comments in a New Yorker interview endorsing legalization of marijuana shocked no one and generated little negative response. Of course, the public is well aware of the president’s personal history with the drug since he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father of smoking it frequently as a youngster, as well as using cocaine in high school and college. But there’s little doubt that the lack of any outrage at his statement about legalization reflects a shift toward more libertarian views on social issues. Indeed, a CBS poll released today indicates that for the first time, a majority of Americans now think pot should be legal.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of repeated use of the drug. Yet most Americans seem to agree with the president that it is no worse than cigarettes and perhaps less dangerous than alcohol. While the 51 percent who now back legalization may not have fully thought out the impact on society of allowing pot into the mainstream, there’s little doubt that the war on drugs to which so much police effort is devoted is unpopular.

But one other aspect of the issue that few have pondered is the liberal hypocrisy that the emerging consensus about legal pot has illuminated. As William Bennett and Christopher Beach pointed out in an incisive Politico magazine article today, there is a question that no one in the media is asking Obama or any other liberal advocate of opening the floodgates to more marijuana: Why do the same people that have sought to outlaw transfats and super-sized sodas while banishing cigarette smokers and seeking to criminalize anything else that can be branded as unhealthy think there’s nothing wrong with a measure that would almost certainly increase the amount of pot smoked in this country?

As Bennett and Beach point out:

The same president who signed into law a tough federal anti-cigarette smoking bill in 2009 now supports marijuana legalization. The inconsistency and self-contradiction is obvious. In the name of public health, liberals wage political war against genetically modified organisms, French fries and tubby kids, yet stand idly by, or worse, support the legalization of a mind-impairing substance known to be addictive and have deleterious effects on the brain.

The very same year, for example, that Colorado legalized marijuana, the Colorado Senate passed (without a single Republican vote) a ban on trans fats in schools. Are we to believe eating a glazed donut is more harmful than smoking a joint? California has already banned trans fats in restaurants statewide, but now is on the brink of legalizing marijuana statewide come November. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to decriminalize marijuana in New York State, while at the same time supporting a ban on extra-large sodas. A 32-ounce Mountain Dew is bad for you, but pot isn’t?

Bennett and Beach supply no answers for this inconsistency, but the answer isn’t exactly a mystery. The push against cigarettes, sugared drinks and transfats reflects a popular culture that venerates health as the supreme good above almost any other value including sexual ethics. But that same liberal ethos has a soft spot for the baby boomers’ favorite illicit drug that brings back fond memories of the 1960s. Pot is, as the authors rightly note, at least as dangerous as any of the perils that the nanny state brigade seeks to outlaw. But since pot smoking is considered an integral part of pop culture coolness, liberal social engineers regard efforts to stop its spread as the preserve of “fascist” killjoys and other liberal piñatas such as religious conservatives.

Like many Americans, I am ambivalent about the utility of the war on drugs and think regulation of private vices is a lost cause. But what the liberal drive to legalize marijuana reflects isn’t so much an expression of libertarianism as it is an outright affection for a popular drug. If we are to legalize marijuana, the government should also stop telling Americans what they can eat, drink, or smoke. All the arguments we hear from nanny state advocates about the high cost to the public in terms of health care needed for those who suffer the ill effects of tobacco, sugar, and transfats can also be made about pot. It’s time for liberals to choose. If they want to be free to light up a joint, they should to stop telling other people what they can’t do. 

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Ciudad Juarez: The Wrong Kind of Calm?

One side effect of the American political habit of fighting metaphorical “wars”—the war on poverty, the war on drugs—is the blurring of distinctions. But the war on drugs stands apart as trickier case: it may be a metaphorical war here, but it is very real once that war stretches beyond our borders. The situation in Mexico is a perfect example, where Ciudad Juarez became one of the most dangerous and bloody cities in the world.

And paradoxically, in Mexico losing the war doesn’t seem all that different from what a victory might look like. The Washington Post reports:

It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.

But the fever seems to have broken.

Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.

Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.

Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.

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One side effect of the American political habit of fighting metaphorical “wars”—the war on poverty, the war on drugs—is the blurring of distinctions. But the war on drugs stands apart as trickier case: it may be a metaphorical war here, but it is very real once that war stretches beyond our borders. The situation in Mexico is a perfect example, where Ciudad Juarez became one of the most dangerous and bloody cities in the world.

And paradoxically, in Mexico losing the war doesn’t seem all that different from what a victory might look like. The Washington Post reports:

It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.

But the fever seems to have broken.

Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.

Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.

Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.

Though the U.S. poured millions in aid into former President Felipe Calderon’s effort to wrest control from the cartels—which included the deployment of the Mexican military to the area—it hardly seems as though the Mexican government was involved in the war. That is, El Chapo, the legendary and seemingly indestructible gang leader, was up against a rival cartel and some infamous assassins, not the authorities.

As James Verini wrote recently, the idea that the Mexican government doesn’t run its own country is far from controversial:

Many Mexicans assume [Guzman] essentially runs the country, and it’s easy to see why. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2007, a steady procession of high-raking government, military, and police officials has been revealed to be working for Chapo or his deputy, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Meanwhile, the murder rate has dropped off a cliff, nightlife is buzzing again–unthinkable only a couple years ago–and the city says 20,000 jobs have been created. To understand just how much of a relief this is to the city’s residents, you need but to glance at the statistics of the infighting at its worst–the murder rate of nine per day, for example. The effect the violence had on the city, not to mention the country, was profound. As Charles Bowden writes in his modern history of the city’s drug wars:

I am sitting with a Juarez lawyer at a party, and he explains that there has been a failure of analysis. He tells me criminology will not explain what is happening, nor will sociology. He pauses and then says that we must study demonology.

Yet if it’s true that the violence has ceased because the government has been defeated (or made irrelevant) then the hope engendered by the quiet seems misplaced and temporary. It also indicates that the supposed American voracious appetite for drugs isn’t, as many claim, fueling the gang war. “From my perspective, the violence had its origin in the sale and consumption of drugs here in Ciudad Juarez; that’s what caused the bulk of the crisis,” Cesar Peniche, the top federal prosecutor in the Juarez area, told the Post, explaining that the war was for control of the city–hence the quiet that currently prevails.

And that portends a larger problem for Mexico. The Post story closes on a dim note:

The criminal organizations that brought Juarez to the brink have not disappeared. “What we have seen,” said Peniche, the prosecutor, “is these groups have moved to other parts of the state.”

Back in 2009, Hillary Clinton’s State Department found itself in the uncomfortable position of seeming to prepare for treating Mexico as a failed state while publicly reassuring the Mexican government that Foggy Bottom had no such intentions. If Clinton was indeed looking at Mexico as a looming failed state, nothing that has happened in the interim will have convinced her otherwise.

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