Pot Smokers for Prohibition

Jonathan is right that, according to the government’s survey data, “current” (i.e., past-month) use of illegal drugs is relatively rare. Still, something done by one in 12 Americans (about 20 million people)—or one in seven (36 million), if we look at past-year use—is a significant phenomenon that involves many otherwise law-abiding people. (We should also acknowledge the possibility that self-reports underestimate the true prevalence of illegal drug use.) And while past-month or past-year use is not normative, lifetime use is, at least for Americans born after World War II, most of who have tried a prohibited intoxicant, typically marijuana, at some point. That fact ought to change the legal approach to marijuana at least. How many former pot smokers—whose ranks include political figures such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush (probably), Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin—think they would have been better off, or more justly treated, if they had been arrested?

Yet according to FBI figures released this week, about 873,000 people were arrested in the United States on marijuana charges last year, the vast majority for simple possession. That’s yet another record-breaking total, and since 1991 the number of marijuana arrests has tripled (without a corresponding increase in marijuana use). Pot smokers who are arrested do not typically spend much time in jail. But they still bear substantial costs, including not just public humiliation, legal expenses, and fines but a variety of ancillary penalties that may include employment difficulties, loss of driver’s licenses, and suspension or revocation of professional licenses. I think this is an area where all of us agree a less punitive approach is appropriate.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In their lead essay, Earth and Fire Erowid stress the importance of developing responsible, fully informed relationships toward psychoactive drugs. Although drug prohibition has persisted for decades, the overwhelming majority of adults have tried at least one illegal drug, and these substances aren’t going away any time soon. Sadly, prohibition itself has stunted our knowledge of these substances, and, as in so many things, ignorance is both dangerous and irresponsible. Provocatively, they criticize even the word “drugs” as a tag for illegal psychoactives: Lumping them all together, they write, betrays a lack of understanding of their vastly different effects, risk profiles and — yes — benefits.

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Caulkins argues that the responsible use of psychoactive drugs is an overstretched concept, if by “psychoactive drugs” we mean everything from caffeine to heroin. In many cases, he argues, temperance may be the only responsible “use” of a given substance.

    Further, state prohibitions on pleasurable but risky acts are hardly confined to this area of law; their violation is not a genuine form of civil disobedience as long as pleasure itself is the real goal of the act. And the risks remain regardless. Duly enacted laws in a democracy deserve far more respect than this, and following the law is a part of the responsibility of all citizens.

  • Jacob Sullum notes that temperance and abstinence have been wrongly conflated, and that the Aristotelian view of temperance encompassed all of the moderate, reasoned, and honorable pleasures of life. He reiterates that virtually everyone uses psychoactive drugs of one kind or another, and that the overwhelming majority of use is responsible. He challenges the notion that the state has any interest in the private actions of individuals that do not harm anyone else, and he terms the impulse to protect people from themselves “unethical” and “an open-ended rationale for government intervention that logically leads to totalitarianism.”

  • Mark Kleiman takes up a theme already addressed by the other participants, namely the distinctions to be found within the catchall category “illegal drugs.” He notes that the risk profiles, motivations for use, and public health considerations of these substances are so far removed from one another that it may make no sense to continue to treat them as similar in public policy. Given the choice between full legalization and the status quo, he would choose the status quo, but, he argues, these alternatives should not be the only ones we consider.