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by Peter Moskos

October 5, 2009

Mass. Decrim Has No Effect On Schools

So say some Massachusetts school officials--the same ones who say decriminalization "sends a terrible message to kids." The story by John Hilliard is here (via the Agitator).

This really is no surprise, but it's important for a few reasons. Prohibitionists seem to care more about "the message" than about actual drug use and drug harms. For too many, it's a moral issue and not a policy issue.

I like to ask those who support the war on drugs if they would support legalization if legalization and regulation decreased drug use. I'd say close to half say "no." Better, they tell me, to keep drugs illegal regardless of drug usage rates. Sometimes increased drug use and overdose deaths can be useful, some drug-warriors even say, for having people overdose in the ghetto sends a powerful “message” to others.

Hmmmmmmm. This sort of ends the debate. So it’s not about drugs. It’s about morals and the power and symbolism of the law.

Prohibition is about a conservative world view that sees drugs as evil. And evil needs to be outlawed. Prohibition is about big-government telling people what to do and how to live their lives.

Take Harry Asslinger (oops, honest typo but much too good to delete)--I mean Harry Anslinger. He was very happy, after failing to maintain alcohol Prohibition, to raise the false alarm about marijuana.


Perhaps Anslinger’s greatest accomplishment was to push marijuana from a fringe drug into the mainstream. That's what happens when you call it the evil weed and highlight the moral turpitude of minorities, immigrants, Catholics, liberals, and other city folk who, like Anslinger believed, were destroying the moral fiber of America.

Whatever. Good or bad, those cool cats sure knew how to party!

In my mind, the debate on drug decriminalization comes down to one main issue: in an era of legal and regulated drugs, would drug use increase or decrease? Of course we can't be sure because we haven't tried it. But the evidence strongly suggests the use would go up and might go down.

System of liberalization and/or decriminalization result in no increase in drug use. Marijuana usage rates in the Netherlands (where it is publicly sold and legally consumed) are lower than in the U.S. Decriminalization in Portugal has also been a success.

How does this work? Lot's of reasons. Forbidden fruit. Distrust of authority. And consider what Diego Gambetta recently pointed out to me: there’s a lot more pressure in social situations to conform and partake in illegal activities than for comparably legal activities.

If a joint is being passed around, you’re expected, especially in young crowds, to smoke a little. This serves two functions beyond social bonding.

1) It shows you're not a cop.

2) You can’t blackmail anybody with your knowledge of illegal behavior since you're guilty too.

There’s a lot more pressure (especially for teenagers) to smoke a joint being passed around than to smoke an offered cigarette. These days cigarettes, regulated and taxed, aren’t even being offered much.

Marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts has not resulting in a bunch of school kids suddenly discovering the drug and firing up. Hell, the first time I ever saw marijuana was in school, watching a drug deal go down in the bathroom (regulated drugs aren’t sold in school bathrooms). And the best anti-drug lesson I ever got was from the guy who sat behind me in first-period German class. He would also come in late, stoned, and reeking of (tobacco) cigarettes. He never learned any German. But then neither did I.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"For too many, it's a moral issue and not a policy issue."

So there are certain policies that should be enacted even by people who think these policies are morally wrong? Isn't the morality of a policy, especially in criminal law, one of the most important things to consider in deciding if it is a good policy or not?

If not, what's the difference? And why analyze if anything is right or wrong in the first place when you can just go through the much simpler motion of deciding whether it is a "good" policy or not? And again, by what measure is a decision about the "goodness" of a policy being made?

Your very own argument is a moral argument, nothing more. You worry that too many people suffer unjust harms under the current regime of drug prohibition, and that certain personal feedoms are being curtailed. You think that legalizing drugs would do less harm to people and enhance their personal freedom. The core of your morality is utilitarian harm avoidance with a dash of respect for personal autonomy thrown in.

Perhaps what you might mean to say is that "For too many, it's a moral issue that rests on a misunderstanding of the actual consequences of legalization."

In conclusion, I think you will find it nearly impossible to show that there is such a thing as something that is "only" a policy issue. The attempt to seperate the morality of a policy from other axes of analysis is a classic mistake.

Anonymous said...

"For too many, it's a moral issue and not a policy issue."

So there are certain policies that should be enacted even by people who think these policies are morally wrong? Isn't the morality of a policy, especially in criminal law, one of the most important things to consider in deciding if it is a good policy or not?

If not, what's the difference? And why analyze if anything is right or wrong in the first place when you can just go through the much simpler motion of deciding whether it is a "good" policy or not? And again, by what measure is a decision about the "goodness" of a policy being made?

Your very own argument is a moral argument, nothing more. You worry that too many people suffer unjust harms under the current regime of drug prohibition, and that certain personal feedoms are being curtailed. You think that legalizing drugs would do less harm to people and enhance their personal freedom. The core of your morality is utilitarian harm avoidance with a dash of respect for personal autonomy thrown in.

Perhaps what you might mean to say is that "For too many, it's a moral issue that rests on a misunderstanding of the actual consequences of legalization."

In conclusion, I think you will find it nearly impossible to show that there is such a thing as something that is "only" a policy issue. The attempt to seperate the morality of a policy from other axes of analysis is a classic mistake.

PCM said...

Oh, philosophy is deep for me. But uh, yeah, basically yes. What you say!

But seriously. I see your point about all policy being moral. And yes, I say that prohibition is immoral, which at its core is a moral argument against prohibition.

I guess my point is not that I'm against morality (phew, right?). I'm against a morality that assigns moral characteristics to a substance. I'm against policy based on the personification of drugs. Drugs don't "do" anything bad. Drugs are drugs. Used for medicine, used for fun, used for self-destruction. Like "personify" and "deify," is satanify a word?

I do not think drugs are "evil." And I have little if any tolerance for any position based on that premise. But then I'm not a religious man. If you see the war on the drugs as part of a greater battle between the forces of good and evil... well, we'll just have to disagree.

I'm against a moral position that rates battling drugs as more important than reducing drug use and saving lives.

And it bothers me when people claim to have the moral high ground ("drugs are baaad")and yet fight against policies that have been proven time and time to prevent deaths (clean needles come to mind).

But you have analyzed me well, young jedi philospher! I would agree that the core of my morality is utilitarian harm avoidance with a dash of respect for personal autonomy. Not a bad recipe, if I do say so myself. Or as some might say, "put that in your pipe and smoke it!"

Thanks for the comment.

DJK said...

Alles gut! Schluss fir hoyte.

PCM said...

Jeeze, DJK, dont yu nou we speek Amererkan here? What does Schluss fir hoyte mean? Is that German or Yiddish? I hope the latter cause last two world wars I checked, people like youz waz shooting people for speaking kraut!