Tag: drug war

John Walters, Drugs, and Libertarians

Over at Politico, former Bush administration drug czar and Hudson Institute official, John Walters, has an article titled, “Why Libertarians Are Wrong About Drugs.”  The thrust of the article is that (1) drug policy is one of the political divides between libertarians and social conservatives and that the social conservatives have the better case; and (2) libertarians can support the drug war without surrendering essential tenets of their political philosophy.  In this post, I want to briefly scrutinize some of Walters’ arguments and observations.

Walters tries to set up his article by framing the debate between social conservatives and libertarians fairly, but right away he falters. “Social conservatives,” he writes, “are troubled by drug abuse, especially among the young.” The implication seems to be that libertarians are not troubled by drug abuse–even if it involves minors. That’s unfair to Milton Friedman, who is quoted in that paragraph, and libertarians generally. I don’t think Walters is intentionally trying to mislead readers here, but that statement does expose one of his faulty understandings of libertarianism. The question has never been whether drug abuse is a problem. It is. The question is how best to address that problem.

Next, Walters tries to demonstrate that a basic tenet of libertarianism is inconsistent with reality–at least in the area of narcotics. Here is Walters: “[L]ibertarians argue that the state should have no power over adult citizens and their decision to ingest addictive substances–so long as they do no harm to anyone but themselves…But this harmless world is not the real world of drug use. There is ample experience that a drug user harms not only himself, but also many others.” Walters then cites instances of domestic violence and other criminal acts that were committed by persons under the influence of narcotics. More faulty reasoning

Colorado Isn’t Having a Cultural Revolution

In news that will surprise exactly no one, music and cannabis can be pretty nice together:

The cultural revolution that is making marijuana part of everyday Colorado life conquers another established front Tuesday as the Colorado Symphony Orchestra announces a series of performances sponsored by the cannabis industry.

The concerts, organized by pro-pot promoter Edible Events, will start May 23 with three bring-your-own marijuana events at the Space Gallery in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district and culminate with a large, outdoor performance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 13. The events are being billed as fundraisers for the CSO, which will curate a themed program of classical music for each show.

But that’s hardly a cultural revolution: The earliest written mention of marijuana was by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who described its users dancing and singing. The rest, as they say, is history.

What’s revolutionary here is the law, which has finally begun treating Coloradans like responsible adults rather than criminals. At least about cannabis: Our laws ought to do the same for all illegal drugs. Doing so will encourage responsible drug use, better scientific research, and better treatment for addicts.

Yes, legal cannabis means we will have to make a few adjustments. But many of them aren’t so bad: “Are drivers sober?” is not a new question, after all. Only now, it’s a question to be answered a little more honestly, and with better treatment from the law. On the whole, that’s clearly for the best.

Marijuana’s Moment

Very good, front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled, “Marijuana’s Moment?

The highlight is a quote from former drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey: “The momentum to treat marijuana as a legal drug is irreversible.”  Wow.  The last time I was on a panel with him was about two years ago and it was quite evident then that the tide was turning, but I expected him to keep fighting.  According to the Post story, the former drug czar no longer accepts invitations to appear on television.  That will save me some time fact-checking him.

Here’s another excerpt from the Post story:

America has been at the edge of marijuana legalization several times during the past half-century, but never as close to mass acceptance of the drug as the nation is today.

Since the 1960s, the United States has traveled on a herky-jerky trip from hippies and head shops to grass-roots backlash by suburban parents, from enthusiastic funding of the war on drugs to a gathering consensus that the war had little effect on marijuana use. Now, for the first time, marijuana legalization is winning majority support in public opinion polls and a drug used by about 6 percent of Americans — and one-third of the nation’s high school seniors — is starting to shake off its counterculture reputation. It is winning acceptance even from some police, prosecutors and politicians.

But is this time really different? Why is the current campaign for legalization resonating when previous ones did not? Today’s leap toward legality is entwined with the financial desperation of cash-strapped states, an Internet-driven revolution in how Americans learn about marijuana and its medicinal uses, and a rising libertarian sensibility in which many liberals and conservatives alike have grown skeptical of government’s role in telling citizens how to medicate themselves.

The momentum is now obvious and it is great to see the drug warriors in retreat, but marijuana is still considered contraband in 48 states and under federal law.  There is still much work to do.  It costs money to start and win initiative campaigns, for example.  It used to be hard to raise money because donors thought it was a hopeless cause.  Now potential donors are making the mistake that legalization is “inevitable.”  The shift in public opinion helps, but it does not assure political action.  To complete the job, friends of legalization need to step up their efforts.  The next state to consider marijuana legalization–by initiative–will be Alaska this summer.

For more info on Cato’s work, go here.

Ter Beek v. City of Wyoming: Marijuana Reform Advances

Last week, the Supreme Court of Michigan rejected a legal challenge to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA).  Although limited to the state of Michigan, this precedent helps to build momentum for other states to move in the direction of marijuana legalization.

By way of background, in 2008 Michigan voters approved a state initiative that would allow medical marijuana for certain qualifying patients.  In 2010, the City of Wyoming enacted an ordinance that essentially prohibited marijuana (no medical exceptions).  John Ter Beek is a resident of the City of Wyoming and he claimed that he was a qualified patient under the state law and he argued that the state law preempted the city ordinance.  Lawyers for the City of Wyoming responded with the argument that the state law was itself invalid because it violated the supremacy clause of the Federal Constitution.  That is, since federal law (the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)) prohibits the possession of marijuana, no state can change its law to allow marijuana sales, or even possession.

The Supreme Court of Michigan unanimously sided with John Ter Beek.  Writing for the court, Justice McCormack said, “[The MMMA] provides that, under state law, certain individuals may engage in certain medical marijuana use without risk of penalty…while such use is prohibited under federal law, [MMMA] does not deny the federal government the ability to enforce that prohibition, nor does it purport to require, authorize, or excuse its violation.”  Thus, there is no violation of the federal supremacy doctrine.

Recall that after Colorado and Washington approved initiatives to legalize marijuana, some former DEA administrators argued that those initiatives were invalid under the federal supremacy clause. (One even said it was a ‘no-brainer.’)   The Obama administration declined to bring such a challenge and we will be hearing it less and less as these precedents pile up.

The Cato Institute joined an amicus brief that urged the Michigan Supreme Court to rule in Mr. Ter Beek’s favor.  More here.

Obama Commutes Some Sentences

From the Miami Herald:

President Barack Obama on Thursday issued 13 pardons and commuted the sentences of eight individuals.

The commuted sentences involved men and women serving long terms on drug charges, including several sentenced to life without parole.

“Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison,” Obama noted. “In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime” …

Another prisoner whose sentence Obama commuted, Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., was sentenced to life without parole in 1993 following his conviction on cocaine charges. Aaron has been a “model prisoner (who) has taken courses in religious studies, economics, Spanish, photography and behavioral development,” according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Obama’s actions here are welcome news to the prisoners and their families, but, from a big picture perspective, the president’s actions are stingy and long overdue.  For additional background, go here and here.  The Pardon Power blog has more details.

Flashback:  I call for the Bush administration (2007!) to pardon Clarence Aaron.

A Familiar Pattern of Futility in the International Drug War

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced last week that the production of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has shifted away from Colombia toward Peru.  Observers of the war on drugs are not surprised by that development. During the early and mid-1990s, drug warriors hailed the decline of coca production in Peru and neighboring Bolivia, thanks to a crackdown that Washington heavily funded through aid programs to Lima and La Paz, as a great victory in the crusade against illegal drugs.  They ignored the inconvenient fact that cultivation and production had merely moved from Peru and Bolivia into Colombia–and to a lesser extent into nearby countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil.

That phenomenon is known as the “balloon” or “push down, pop up” effect.  Strenuous efforts to dampen the supply of illicit drugs in one locale simply cause traffickers to move their production to other locations where the pressure is weaker for the moment.  When Washington and Bogotá launched Plan Colombia in 2000, the multi-billion-dollar, multi-year program to attack the coca industry in that country, cultivation and production gradually began to shift back to Peru and Bolivia.  The latest UN report confirms that trend.  As Ricardo Soberón, the former heard of Peru’s drug policy office, put it: “The carousel has come full circle.”  Adam Isacson, an expert on Latin American drug issues with the Washington Office on Latin America, noted that the new map of coca production “looks an awful lot like the old” map from the early 1990s.

The latest development underscores how proclamations of victory in the international war on drugs invariably prove to be ephemeral.  Trying to suppress the supply of a product that is in high demand is a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  The illegal drug trade is conservatively estimated to be a $350 billion per year industry, and global consumer demand is growing.  Even if a new crackdown in Peru causes a temporary disruption of the supply coming out of that country, all that we will see is a new “balloon” episode in neighboring states.  Indeed, there are indications that Brazil and Argentina already are becoming far more prominent participants in drug trafficking, in part because they are convenient transshipment points for sending drugs to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, where consumption is on the rise.

We have ample evidence over the course of many decades that drug prohibition does not work; a prohibition policy merely guarantees that violent criminal elements instead of legitimate business enterprises will control the trade.  Focusing on which countries are supplying most of the drugs at a particular moment, and cheering about a temporary victory in one arena, is an exercise in futility.

Distrust of Justice System also Affects Black Americans’ Views on Public Health Measures

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog “interviews political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley about their book on how blacks and whites perceive the criminal justice system, and what it implies for Trayvon Martin’s death, George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the aftermath.” An excerpt, quoting Hurwitz/Peffley:

We asked whether it’s a “serious problem” in their community that police “stop and question blacks far more often than whites” or that police “care more about crimes against whites than minorities.” On average, 70 percent of blacks, but only 17 percent of whites, considered these serious problems…[W]hile about 25 percent of whites disagreed with the statement that the “courts give all a fair trial,” more than 60 percent of African Americans disagreed. Repeatedly, using every possible barometer, we found that blacks doubted the fairness of the justice system much more than whites…

Much of the difference comes down to either personal or vicarious experiences that people have with police and the courts. We found that African Americans, especially younger black men, were far more likely than whites to report being treated unfairly by the police because of their race. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll found that one of every four black men under age 35 said that the police have treated them unfairly during the last 30 days.

This excerpt reminded me of a data point I included in the health care chapter I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism:

A 2004 survey published in the journal Health Affairs hints at one way [public-health] powers could be abused. Amid widespread concern about bioterrorism, roughly equal shares of white and black Americans expressed support for quarantines to contain a serious contagious disease. When subsequently asked whether they would support a compulsory quarantine, where the authorities would have the power to arrest violators, 25% of whites changed their minds, whereas 51% of blacks did, indicating an awareness that these policies would not necessarily be fairly implemented.

It also reminded me of this John McWhorter speech, reprinted in the Winter 2011 issue of Cato’s Letter, where he argues the war on drugs is behind “the strained relationship between young black men and police forces,” and racial progress requires ending the drug war.

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