As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why Obama on Legalization Bugs

Just to show that I'm not some drug-addled hippie looking for a safe toke (in fact I've never smoked pot more than once or twice in my life), let's have a slightly more scholarly discussion about reforming our nation's drug laws than the President wants to have. You can even do it without snickering!

I don't think it takes much to convince everyone that the nation's current drug laws have failed, and failed utterly. Don't take my word for it, take the word of the Secretary of State.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Mexico on Wednesday with a blunt mea culpa, saying that decades of U.S. anti-narcotics policies have been a failure and have contributed to the explosion of drug violence south of the border.

"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," Clinton told reporters on her plane at the start of her two-day trip, saying that U.S. policies on curbing drug use, narcotics shipments and the flow of guns have been ineffective.

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she added. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Let's be extremely clear about what Clinton means by failure. At home we have a policy focused on decreasing demand through law enforcement and incarceration. This has only sent the industry underground, made it more violent, increased the ranks of the jailed in our prisons, which typically provide college-level courses in how to commit violent crime instead of rehabilitation and treatment, and done nothing toward the central task. Abroad, we have a policy of interdiction and eradication, which inflames local populations, again sends the industry underground, makes it more violent, and does nothing toward the central task of decreasing supply.

Charles Lemos links to a CNN report by Jeffrey Miron that goes into this subject in greater detail.

Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.

Violence was common in the alcohol industry when it was banned during Prohibition, but not before or after.

Violence is the norm in illicit gambling markets but not in legal ones. Violence is routine when prostitution is banned but not when it's permitted. Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question.

The only way to reduce violence, therefore, is to legalize drugs. Fortuitously, legalization is the right policy for a slew of other reasons.

Prohibition of drugs corrupts politicians and law enforcement by putting police, prosecutors, judges and politicians in the position to threaten the profits of an illicit trade. This is why bribery, threats and kidnapping are common for prohibited industries but rare otherwise. Mexico's recent history illustrates this dramatically.

Prohibition erodes protections against unreasonable search and seizure because neither party to a drug transaction has an incentive to report the activity to the police. Thus, enforcement requires intrusive tactics such as warrantless searches or undercover buys. The victimless nature of this so-called crime also encourages police to engage in racial profiling.

Prohibition has disastrous implications for national security. By eradicating coca plants in Colombia or poppy fields in Afghanistan, prohibition breeds resentment of the United States. By enriching those who produce and supply drugs, prohibition supports terrorists who sell protection services to drug traffickers.

Prohibition harms the public health. Patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and other conditions cannot use marijuana under the laws of most states or the federal government despite abundant evidence of its efficacy. Terminally ill patients cannot always get adequate pain medication because doctors may fear prosecution by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Now that is the argument for legalization. It is not ridiculously popular and I don't think the data even show much of a generational shift yet. But it's not an unserious argument. It's not worthy of snickering. The truth is that, even while opposing the eventual argument for legalization, there are a host of issues that the Obama Administration could tackle, and indeed says they are tackling, to reduce the worst effects of the failed war on drugs. Eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders, as they are moving toward in New York with the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, is a start. So would increasing funding for treatment centers, and decriminalizing low-level drug crimes, and ending the raids on perfectly legal medical marijuana centers in the states. While the Obama Justice Department has vowed to do the latter, they forgot to tell someone at the DEA today:

Drug Enforcement agents yesterday raided a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco, a week after US Attorney General Eric Holder said federal authorities would no longer prosecute providers that are not otherwise in violation of state laws.

Yesterday, agents raided Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic, hauling out plants and growing equipment. The dispensary, which gives out free marijuana to the poor once a week, had a temporary city permit allowing it to operate.

The DEA special agent in charge told the San Francisco Chronicle that Emmalyn's was skirting state laws as well. According to Holder's remarks last week, that would make it a candidate for federal legal action. Also:

A source in San Francisco city government who was informed about the raid said the DEA's action appeared to be prompted by alleged financial improprieties related to the payment of sales taxes. DEA Special Agent Casey McEnry, spokeswoman for the local office, would not comment on that information.

I don't remember the DEA raiding any other business that had a state sales tax issue, ever, in history.

My point is that advocates for legalization, and I'm not entirely one (I believe that there would be a similar issue with advertising and sales to minors as you have with cigarettes), have an argument to make, and it can be handled entirely seriously, with the pros and cons weighed and the final judgment reached. The dismissiveness of the President today is the problem, not his verdict.

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