Politicians with Pot Problems

To clarify my analogies between taxing alcohol on the one hand and taxing cars, firearms, or sex on the other: In all these cases, some users — drunken drivers, reckless (but sober) drivers, violent criminals, promiscuous disease carriers — cause harm to others. But in my view, it is not fair to tax all users in an effort to deter the antisocial minority.

I did not mean to imply that the sheer number of drug offenders, by itself, tells us the law should be changed. (Another crucial point to consider is the fact that consuming a politically incorrect intoxicant, unlike committing a predatory felony, does not violate anyone’s rights.) But when we live in a society where most adults (current retirees excluded) have tried illegal drugs (usually marijuana), that fact might reasonably be expected to affect the views of policy makers regarding the treatment of pot smokers. Generally speaking, personal experience with marijuana reveals it to be not as big a deal as the government claims — which explains the government’s current emphasis on increases in potency that supposedly make today’s pot much more dangerous that what Mom and Dad smoked. For the vast majority of users, smoking pot is far less damaging than getting busted for it would be. Politicians who support the current policy of arresting pot smokers therefore have some explaining to do if they themselves smoked pot without suffering any legal consequences, unless they are prepared to say they should have been arrested — i.e., that such a life-disrupting brush with the law would have been entirely fair and appropriate. Does Barack Obama or Sarah Palin truly believe that? Smoking pot did not cause any noticeable harm to their lives or careers. But if they had been arrested, they probably would not be where they are today.

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.