Sunday, October 12, 2014

Marijuana legalization is not an “experiment”

In the wake of his state’s decision to legalize marijuana, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper expressed his skepticism about what he considers “one of the great social experiments of the 21st century.” Since then, the media has taken a great affinity for the term.

On the day after legalization took effect, the Wall Street Journal disparaged the “bong inspired visions” of the “Stoner State” that led to “Colorado’s Pot Experiment.” In February, The Christian Science Monitor describedThe marijuana legalization experiments underway”, and Al Jazeera titled their discussion of the issue “Colorado’s legal pot experiment.” By March, the title of a Dallas News article fretted that Colorado mustn’t let their “pot experiment draw in teenagers,” while CNN repeatedly described the “Colorado experiment” with bemused condescension as well.

Soon enough, the president had jumped on the bandwagon, describing Colorado’s referendum as “an interesting social experiment” in his speech at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. By late April, the word “great” had been added. Slate described the effects “five months into Colorado’s great pot experiment.” In July, The Economist titled this article “The Great Pot Experiment”, and in August the New York Times followed suit with another titled “The Great Colorado Weed Experiment.” And just yesterday, the Associated Press reminded us we are now “nine months into Colorado’s recreational pot experiment.”

One wonders how many months of peaceful and productive non-cataclysm need be strung together before a policy change qualifies as non-experimental.

A year from now, when legal pot is nearing its second birthday, will it still be called an experiment? When other states follow suit next month, will they only be experimenting as well? Just this week, gay marriage also became legal in Colorado. How likely is it that the media will begin reminding us of the experimental nature of this decision?

If such redundant word choice strikes you as a belabored attempt to push a certain narrative, you have good instincts. The word “experiment” is intentionally loaded with statist sentiment – carefully chosen to frame the debate within the perspective of a liberal policy wonk. Just as the establishment is unsettled by the drug war’s impending demise, everyday people view “experiments” with a suspicious eye. When you go to the hospital, an experimental treatment is a method of last resort. Scientists experiment on animals because the dangers of experimenting are too great for human subjects. Experiments are risky, and experiments can fail. To describe legalization as an “experiment” is to strongly suggest that it might turn out badly. At the very least, it implies that the jury is still out, that the results are pending, and that we should be cautious and skeptical to follow suit until we have a chance to study the results.

The oldest trick in the establishment’s bag is to make opposing ideas appear frightening and radical. The full context of Obama’s quote at the Correspondent’s dinner is a perfect example:

“Michelle and I watched the Olympics — we cannot believe what these folks do — death-defying feats — haven’t seen somebody pull a “180” that fast since Rand Paul disinvited that Nevada rancher from this dinner.  (Laughter.)  As a general rule, things don’t like end well if the sentence starts, “Let me tell you something I know about the negro.”  (Laughter.)  You don’t really need to hear the rest of it.  (Laughter and applause.)  Just a tip for you — don’t start your sentence that way.  (Laughter.)

Speaking of Rand Paul — (laughter) — Colorado legalized marijuana this year, an interesting social experiment. I do hope it doesn’t lead to a whole lot of paranoid people who think that the federal government is out to get them and listening to their phone calls.  (Laughter.)”

Obama had no joke about legalization – he didn’t need to bring it up at all. Yet he chose to sandwich a brief mention of it right in between the sentence about a racist cowboy in armed rebellion against BLM officials and the joke about tinfoil-hat-wearing alarmists fretting over the NSA. The loons! Of course, neither racism nor privacy paranoia have any actual connection to marijuana legalization, and the president did not even allege a connection. He used it as a segway between those topics merely to associate it with marginalized viewpoints – to send the subliminal message that legalization is some cooky newfangled fad that only paranoid racists support.

Reasonable, educated, moderate, respectable people, the narrative continues, would never dare take such a bold and sudden move without a better understanding of the consequences. In the CNN video I linked to above, S.E. Cupp fancies herself as one of these people. In between giggling over bad puns with the word “high” in them, Cupp warns that we’ll “have to see” about legalization because “there’s a lot to watch.” Before we determine whether this is good policy, she notes, “we’ll have to see if all of the people who want marijuana have already bought it” or if it “leads to more pot smoking.” If so, she continues, “we want to know among whom?” and if it leads to “more illicit substances?” Lest she failed to drive home how dubious it all is by now, she repeats the word “experiment” at the end of her clip as well to get the point across: legalization is a dicey proposition whose prospects of success remain very much in doubt.

What Cupp, Obama and their ilk fail to understand is that ceasing to incarcerate victimless, unthreatening, morally innocent people is not the means to some other end, but the end itself. We do not need to await the results of marijuana legalization in one place to inform us about the wisest course of action elsewhere because legalization is the result. There is nothing to watch, and we don’t have to wait and see, for there is no possible outcome from Colorado’s referendum that could render it a poor decision.

The driving factor behind the growing number of Americans who support the full and immediate legalization of marijuana is not the nuanced policy analyses offered by public health experts. It is not that millions of Americans have pored through the studies on both sides of the debate and simply changed their minds about whether it’s addictive, or whether it would reduce violence, or whether it would decrease the deficit. The Coloradans who voted to legalize neither know much nor care much about this complex web of interconnected second and third order effects. What motivated Coloradans to legalize was the ever-growing recognition that those with different recreational preferences from their own can and should peacefully coexist amongst them, without fear of unthinkably harsh reprisal. It was simple tolerance.

The effects of legalization on the budget, or the economy, or public health, or child pot usage rates, or the damn dogs will all be beneficial. They are also ancillary. The effects on those who want to make personal choices about what they put into their own bodies, without being forcibly removed from their homes and potentially raped in overcrowded prisons for years at a time, are fundamental and undeniable. Legalizing drugs cannot fail at its principal purpose: it is, by definition, guaranteed to succeed at making pot legal. It is not risky, and it is not an experiment.

Prohibition was the experiment – and holy God in Heaven, did it fail.

Thanks to prohibition, nearly two million Americans are arrested for drug offences every year. Over 1/3 of them wind up in prison. The incarceration rate in the Land of the Free has tripled over the past 40 years, and is now the highest in the world. A full ¼ of these prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders, and thousands of those are serving life sentences due to drug war mandatory minimums. One of them might have been 19 year old Jacob Lavoro, who only two months ago was facing 10-99 years for making pot brownies with 2.5 grams of THC until public outrage pressured officers to seek “only” 2-20 years.

Thanks to prohibition, drug usage increases even as the federal government shells out hundreds of billions of dollars trying to make it decrease. The annual budgetary cost is $40 billion. 100-150 times a day, SWAT teams conduct “no-knock raids” in which they kick in the doors of private residences and ransack them on the suspicion of finding drugs. When the inhabitants are armed, they sometimes kill the officers accidentally for fear they are a burglar – and then get jailed for decades or even executed for the error. When the inhabitants are unarmed, the policemen sometimes kill them anyway (or their dogs, or their bedridden 80 year old grandparents), whether or not any drugs are found. All of this happens with unbelievable frequency.

Thanks to prohibition, 35 year old fathers are deported for weed they smoked when they were teenagers. 54 year old women are selected at random, rectally and vaginally probed for 6 hours in search of drugs, and when none are found, billed $5,000 for the pleasure. 27 year olds will spend the next twenty years doing hard labor for possessing half an ounce of pot. Policemen trick autistic teenagers into buying drugs in exchange for federal funding. Children are stripped from their mothers for months on end due to false positives from poppy seed dressing (or years if they dare use medical marijuana in states where it’s legal). Aaron Sandusky is serving ten years in prison for selling medical marijuana in that same state. He is out of appeals. Patients in desperate need of Vicadin suffer in agony because other doctors are afraid of going to jail for prescribing them.

Thanks to prohibition, blacks are targeted 3.7 times as often as whites despite identical usage rates, creating deep-seated distrust of policemen that propagates racial tension and inequality. Thanks to prohibition, Jamaican father of two Dalton Knight Wilson is midway through a 30 year sentence for having a baggie of marijuana seeds in his car. After all, as his West Texas juror later proclaimed, “we taught that nigger a lesson.”

Imagine for a moment that it was prohibition, not legalization, which had taken effect this year. Imagine that on January 1st, Texas had become the first state in the nation to criminalize marijuana, and hordes of oh-so-inquisitive reporters had descended on the state to see the results for themselves. Imagine the four paragraphs of hyperlinks I just provided you were what they found. Who in their right mind would consider that experiment a success? If the media dutifully reported on these developments to a public that had not already grown accustomed to them, how many other states would wish to follow Texas’ lead?

And yet, I cannot remember the last time I saw a mainstream media outlet investigate existing drug policy with so skeptical an eye as they apply to Colorado every day. I don’t even think they would call it news – drug war stories that should appall us are so frequent and perpetual that outlets deem them too run-of-the-mill to report. Prohibition’s destruction is too normal to stand out, its horrors obfuscated by being ordinary. However much partisan bias exists at the major news networks is more than overshadowed by their bias for the status quo.

So allow me to set the record straight. Colorado and Washington (and Uruguay and Maryland and Minnesota and a growing many other places) are not “experimenting” with legalizing pot. They have merely decided to terminate the devastating 40 year experiment with prohibition in which the rest of the country remains mired. This decision is not the fickle whim of an overly adventurous outlier; it has as much irreversible staying power as the 21st amendment did 80 years before. Like the recognition of gay marriage, it results from slow, belated but very likely permanent progress in the public’s tolerance for antiquated social taboos.

Even if the economic benefits of legalization peter out, Coloradoans will never revert to pretending that those who drink their intoxicants are somehow nobler than those who smoke them. Even if drug usage increases, Coloradoans will no longer fear or punish those with different recreational preferences from their own. At long last, a majority of Americans have decided to ignore the centrist fear mongers and busybodies who have tried so hard for so long to keep nightmarish moral imperialism alive and kicking. Thankfully, shrouding that intolerance behind loaded word choice will not change their minds.

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