the greatest good

Welcome to the third edition of the marijuana memo podcast. My name is Doug Olena. It is Wednesday May 24, 2006. Today I am going to talk about the greatest good.

Under any enlightened democracy, one that claims to be serving the people’s best interests and actively promotes the general welfare by a combination of policies that promotes freedom and prevents predation of its citizens, we ought to be able to choose the policies by the best data and reasons we can acquire.

I thought, for our current entertainment, we should look at some of the harms of using drugs and of the drug war.

Reuter and MacCoun’s lucid but pessimistic view of political change in Drug War Heresies affords us a marvelous look into some of these issues. I will read some of the categories of damage they describe, and maybe say something about the particular class of harm. To offset some of their pessimism, I want to suggest that being published in 2001 makes their reading of the political temper a bit dated. Though the drug warriors are as obstinate as they have been in the past, the bells they ring to alarm us of the dangers of marijuana are starting to sound more hollow as the scientific evidence about marijuana’s benefits continue to flow in. In 2006 the political and social temper is becoming impatient with the federal government’s persistent non-scientific stonewalling of the debate. It is harder to sound moral when one takes useful medicine away from needy patients.

On this chart found on page 106 and 107, the primary sources of harm stem from Use, Illegal Status and Enforcement. The categories of who bears the harm are Users, Dealers, Intimates, Employers, Neighborhood and Society. The categories of harm are Health, Social and economic functioning, Safety and public order, and Criminal justice. The structure of the chart seems obvious after a bit of thought. Any one of us could fairly construct the same chart after a fair bit of work.
The health care costs of use are primarily borne by users and intimates, though employers may pay for some of this as well as society for public health care. The actual behaviors surrounding drug acquisition, addiction and disease are borne primarily by users and intimates. The source of harm causing proliferation of disease is both use and the illegal status of the drug, but the inhibition of voluntary pursuit of treatment is caused by enforcement of the laws.

Very little of these harms come from marijuana use. The figures above are mostly associated with heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine and other less common drugs. Most treatment today for marijuana abuse is generated by the courts sidetracking potential prisoners to treatment. In addition prevention of quality control harms the user, and restriction on medical use of the drug which harms society are solely due to its illegal status.

As with many Federal statistics, inflating perception of the problem is politically motivated. So when you hear that the largest increase of emergency room drug problems is due to marijuana, the reason is most probably not marijuana, but other drugs or accidents where the user confessed for the required medical history that they used marijuana in the recent past. The only time I have heard of marijuana being the cause of medical problems is the case of Bruce Lee who was said by some biographers to have had an allergic reaction to hashish that caused his brain to swell. They say he died from one of these episodes. I am no medical expert and not much of a historian. Since I have no access to his files I can’t corroborate this story. But if it is true, his case is the exception that proves the rule. Marijuana, for the most part is harmless compared to other easily available, legal drugs.

Reduced performance in school and the workplace, poor parenting and child abuse are caused largely by use of illicit substances, though harm to self esteem, employability and reputation stem from both use and illegal status. Criminal experience and acquaintance with criminal networks are caused by illegal status alone while elevated price of drugs and infringement on personal liberty are due to enforcement. The loss of any possible benefits of the drugs themselves is due to illegal status. Most of these effects harm the user, society and intimates.

With respect to safety and public order, the worst depredations of drug use are clearly accidents that come from impared judgment and functioning of the individual on drugs, and the rare psychotic episode emerging from use damages everyone.

Use and enforcement cause property loss and damage. Economic and systemic violence come from enforcement. Fearfulness of the populace and a sense of public disorder and disarray come both from use and enforcement. Observation of the widespread violation of the law is due to the illegal status of drugs and harms society.

Rehearsing these harms doesn’t answer why they affect society as they do, but it takes little imagination to see how everyone is affected by these prohibitionist policies. Damage to the individual in a more humane society can be ameliorated somewhat by policies that treat people instead of problems. When I see the conservatives, even the Christians brandishing the weapons in this war, I know there is a serious delusion about our ability to control people’s behavior. I take it Jesus would never have fought this war against people. Ghandi wouldn’t either, nor Lincoln or Mother Theresa. Name your own heros. The brightest lights of our history humanized us. They draw us to them by the force of their moral lights. We are humbled in their presence. These modern warriors have none of these attributes.

The damage to our criminal justice system which is due to the enforcement of the draconian laws of our current prohibition is devastating to our confidence in the system. Increased police, court and incarceration costs, preempting of scarce jail space, court congestion and delay, police invasion of personal privacy, corruption and demoralization of legal authorities are due purely to enforcement. The increase of violations of the law is due to the illegal status of these substances.

Devaluation of arrest as a moral sanction leads me to believe the moralists will some day abandon these policies. The police, obeying the law, find themselves doing things that do not serve justice. It is on this account that many police are openly opposed to these policies. Judges as well are throwing up their hands in despair at the loss of discretion marked by mandatory sentencing laws. The unfairness of the system is breaking the back of justice in our nation.

Then we come to the international problems caused by our enforcement policies. We interfere in source countries and strain international relations. This is certainly oversimplifying the issue, but Reuter and MacCoun touch on these issues fairly in the book.

Then there are fines, time and income lost, legal expenses, the stigma of a criminal record and the fears of apprehension borne by users, dealers and intimates. All are caused by enforcement. Just judging the costs on society of these policies tells us there is a terrible inequity. Federal costs of the drug war are rising to over 20 billion a year. State and local costs are escalating faster than federal costs, spending in 2005 over 30 billion. So at a cost of 50 billion a year and rising, drugs are cheaper, more available and purer than in previous times. Add to that the indignity of the government essentially creating a black market of between 30 billion and 60 billion dollars a year. I have read figures much larger than that but let’s keep our hats on. The statistics are mostly guesses here. There is no way to track the black market reliably. You can count addicts, users, and drug busts, but each comes up with wildly different figures. I’m sure someone has done more work on this, but the point is that governments, police, legitimate businesses etc. have all become codependent on the blace market and rely on these profits.

So on one hand every agency in Washington DC is addicted to drug war money. State and local enforcement agencies are addicted to drug war money. On the other hand the nation is awash in laundered drug profits.

Reuter and MacCoun, in one of their most lucid moments, judging the fallout of legalization of heroin, suggest that though use will spread, the average harm from a single incident will fall dramatically. So our nation would actually be helping alleviate overall harm by legalizing it. They claim however, that the national temper is dramatically opposed to such thinking and would never permit it.

I remember reading a series of novels by Piers Anthony called Bio of a Space Tyrant. In the colonies around Jupiter he legalizes heroin and provides it free to users and addicts. The only people opposed to the action were those who had a financial interest keeping it illegal. The addicts found help and returned to basically normal lives.

I’m sorry, this is the Marijuana Memo and not the Heroin Memo. The remarks about heroin are meant to show that even when one of the obvious targets of the drug war becomes legal, things may improve. So when one judges the harms from the use of marijuana, and harm reduction is a tactic currently employed by many who wish to legalize it, the majority of harms are caused by its illegal status and enforcement.

At some other time I will trot across this stage some of the cases where enforcement has gone completely awry damaging everybody, but at the moment, suffice it to say that the net harm from smoking marijuana is diminishingly small compared to the harm of enforcement. Legalizing it would produce little additional harm and provide profits through taxes that would potentially pay for any of the minimal harms and dependencies caused by use. An interesting article by Jeffrey Miron and signed by over 500 modern economists gives a very rational picture of the benefits and harm reduction of regulating and taxing marijuana sale. Hey for Pete’s sake, marijuana is the fourth largest cash crop in America today.

Look, does anybody really think, looking at history, that one can fix this problem by further punishment?

To return to the title of this podcast, how are we to obtain the greatest good in our society? James Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosopohy concludes that the single most important moral principle is human welfare. Let’s ask ourselves, what will produce the best promise of human flourishing? Shall we have a country that holds up a great edifice of laws but despises the people over whom those laws tower, or a country that believes we should respect the rights of people with a principled adherence to the welfare of all citizens? I know what I would choose, though we are not priviliged to live in such a society at the moment.

Lovers of freedom, lovers of God, lovers of people unite against the increasingly irrational and treacherous world view instituted by the drug warriors. Push for a public debate. Push for a referendum. Vote the warriors out of office. It is time to promote peace in our land.

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A Rational View of a Complex Topic