parameters of the podcast

The sprawling nature of the marijuana debate, the science and politics, the myths and facts, the ethical questions surrounding legalization and prohibition, the cost benefit analysis, culture and the moral temper of global society make for an ungainly topic.

But there are a few things I am really interested in, so I will concentrate on those. As far as the podcast, I guess there should be separate segments. Maybe a segment on the law, one on medicine, one on culture. I suppose there should be reviews of books and movies, (gee, I think I could justify buying more movies), maybe interviews with the players, I’d love to talk with Marc Emery. I think there should be some discussion of ethics, especially since the modern temper is concerned with doing the right thing.

It is blisteringly clear with over 750,000 arrests for marijuana last year, mostly for mere posession, that we have a dilemma on our hands. The social disruption of modern policy is terrible. The damage to individuals is perhaps incalculable though there are markers that help us quantify their distress.

On one side of this debate is a belief that law itself can regulate behavior. The difficulty with this is that someone must pay for the enforcement. The other side of the debate, and of course these are merely charicatures of the positions, is that the government has no right to attempt to control people with respect to behavior that is of no immediate danger to others.

Make no mistake, drug use has quantifiable harms. The question is whether the harm from prohibition is more or less dangerous than the harms of drug use. My research tells me that, at the moment, the tolls of the drug war far outweight the dangers of drug use. This may not be reason enough to call for legalization. But it is reason enough to call for discussion.

At the moment the federal government of the United States makes every effort to avoid discussion by playing the law card. Research is squashed, avoided, biased to allow only negative reports, many of which are false. Opposing this is often a simple belief that the harms will end when marijuana is legalized. I am of the opinion that the Dutch have it right that no prohibition should exact a greater cost on the people than the harms of the drugs themselves. Therefore their national temper allows a more liberal policy in the attempt to reduce harms.

Harm reduction is often the ethical goal of both the law and the liberalizers. We find ourselves in a dilemma though when we try to negotiate a truce here. Fundamental beliefs about the role of the government differ between these groups. Appeals to the constitution and historical witness are clearly on the side of the legalizers. However in this commercial world, the prevalence of marijuana use is likely to grow when legitimate advertising starts its push for sale of weed. With legitimate adult use, which statistics tell us declines by the time people reach their late 20’s, there is likely to be an increase in illegal transfer to underage persons. But this is not necessarily a reason for preventing legalization seeing that under the current prohibitionist policy pot is easier for the high school student to acquire than alcohol or tobacco.

So many things must be examined for us to even begin to make any predictions about how it will really all pan out. Most of the arguments against legalization of marijuana rest on some paternal mistrust in the ability of adult persons to decide for themselves how they ought to behave. Most of the arguments for legalization, beside the medical ones, appeal to the constitutional liberty guaranteed by our founders.

Abraham Lincoln said it well, “Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”

The modern temper is more than mildly mistrustful of liberty, even though we make a big deal out of possessing it, fighting for it and defending it. In Judge James P. Gray’s book, (see the link on the right) Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed, he sites a poll taken where people were first asked whether they would change their behavior if drugs became legal. (Fuzzy figures here) About 97% said they would not. When asked whether they thought their neighbors would change their behavior, 70% thought they would. What underlies this is an erosion of the trust that glues society together. If enough suspicion can be generated then there is only one appeal and that is to the federal government.

Dag, this gets complicated. Please save me Uncle Sam.

No society can survive long when its members are set against one another by policy. Reading twentieth century Soviet history is telling of this effect. By policy, if parents discover “subversive” activity in a child, they were obligated under threat to turn the child in to the authorities. Likewise if parents were “subversive” children were obligated under the same threat to turn their parents in. Chaotically what was subversive at any time was not altogether well defined. Any belief or behavior that was not explicitly approved by the state was under suspicion. And the state could change its mind about which behaviors were approved or not.

The consequence of this is that the populace was under continual duress for fear of appearing subversive. As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn suggested in The Gulag Archipelago, one did nothing to be noticed. As far as our vaunted freedom of speech in the United States, what was first intended to be protection of political speech of any kind, has been broadened to include pornography and other forms of expression and tightened to prevent political speech of many kinds.

I am not here arguing for a ban on pornography in paper or on the net, though a few obvious boundaries would be welcome if one wished to filter it out, but to think that political speech, because it is inconvenient to the current regime, is to be filtered out seems to go against everything the nation stands for. When political conventions are nothing more than showpieces for unified platforms, that there is no lawful dissent or forum for it, betrays the founders’ intent to have open and lively debate.

In a more sinister fashion, I find myself feeling as if I have to be cautious about what I say here for fear some overzealous nark will plant some pot in my house then bust me. It’s been around thirty years since I smoked. But that doesn’t mean some former occupant of the house I now live in did not drop a seed or two along the edge of the carpet. I hate this feeling that I am not really as free as I would like to be. I hate mistrusting the police who in their zeal for the law, like Adolph Eichmann, are only carrying out the orders of their superiors, irrespective of the legitimacy of the laws in question.

I gave up being a cop (you know the type, people who believe it is their responsibility to keep chaos at bay by running other people around) because I didn’t think Jesus would act that way. But I had to do this consciously since it is part of the American psyche to believe that my way is the correct way and anybody who doesn’t follow that needs to come into line.

How far have we fallen that we don’t and can’t bring ourselves to believe the best in people, that we mistrust our government and our neighbor, that we have relinquished trust in natural rights in exchange for fallible human codes, that we don’t believe in the rule of law but the rule of Uncle Sam, that sound practical reasoning is something a few academics practice, not the nation as a whole.

Is it time to rage against the machine for treating us like things to be manipulated? From another angle, is there a ghost in the machine? Well certainly it is not any holy ghost, nor the ghosts of just politicians. Speaking of just politicians, I remember Jimmie Carter’s presidency. We don’t have his ghost yet and I’m not pushing for it, but the voice of reason from that man is often drowned out by the voice of loudmouths like Nixon or Clinton who, so certain of their right, blunder past all reason into every sort of dark alley.

I liked Carter and still do. But I recall that his effort to legalize marijuana was met by some well-intentioned mothers who worried about their children because of the myths of marijuana’s dangers, and was disappointed at Carter backing down. Not because I don’t care for children, but because those poor women bought into the rhetoric of the drug warriors and neglected the truth, good science and sound reasoning.

It all comes back to a general mistrust of the bohemian. The equation of the pot smoker with the loser in our society has been drummed into us since before we were born. We like to hide our immorality behind respectability. It doesn’t really matter what you are or do, as long as you look good doing it. The most effective traffickers in drugs don’t look like Cheech and Chong, Denzel Washington or Ozzie Osborne. They look like Ozzie and Harriet or Ward Cleaver.

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A Rational View of a Complex Topic