Headline for today: The POTUS’ mild words on weed. To wit, that it is “no more dangerous than alcohol” and that its legalization ought to go forward. Doubtless this is a position worthy of headlines. Our country doesn't exactly have a long history of indulgent toleration of THC, at least not at the official level. We are moving into new territory, and the presidents’ taking his current position publicly is as clear evidence of that move as one could desire.
The question to ask, in this case as in most others, is, “Why?” Why decriminalize after so many long and bitter years of opposition? The president’s answer is not exactly what the quotable page-topper I cited above might suggest. Mr. Obama seems to be resting his case not on relative medical harm, but on relative social harm. In other words, “no more dangerous than alcohol” is an argument that the cumulative health threat posed by widespread recreational marijuana usage is negligible when compared with the social damage done by enforcing its prohibition. In other words, this is not a “mostly harmless” characterization of the drug, it is a “less harmful” one.
At the risk of exposing my own opinions on the issue, I will state that this sort of argument lends itself more easily to the nuanced, case-specific cost-benefit analysis that I believe to be most productive in making good policy decisions. As the president mentioned in the same interview, the balance of the cost-benefit inequality may shift in the case of substances whose potential to cause widespread medical harm is demonstrably greater. Even in these cases however, the president seems to keep the social ramifications of enforcement policy under careful consideration, stating, “…when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user and the social costs are profound.” (All quotes are from this interview.)
Clearly then, simple medical concerns make up only a part of the president’s softer approach to marijuana. How exactly then, does he characterize the social concerns that, in his mind, outweigh the physical ones? The position runs as follows, “It is important for [experiments with marijuana decriminalization] to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
This is an egalitarian position, and one that I have a certain degree of sympathy for. When one portion of the population is incarcerated for a certain offense while another portion is simply reprimanded or ignored, it is difficult to avoid resentment. That sort of situation violates our sense of equality under the law, which sense, however difficult to put into practice, remains a tenet of our system of ideals. It just isn’t fair. It makes people resentful and indignant and is therefore problematic from a policy standpoint. Intense resentment of authority in minority communities does not make law enforcement easier.
However, I think that the issue the president brings up deserves further consideration. What exactly are we to do when, “a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law?” We cannot imprison a large portion of the population. Even now, we imprison a relatively small proportion, less than two percent, but many people find this number to be uncomfortably large. So if near universal imprisonment is not a solution, what is? Do we simply reduce the penalty? Do we decriminalize to reduce the load on our criminal justice system? Do we abolish the law as pointless and irrelevant?
An analogous case to consider might be that of speeding. It is accompanied by a statistically-demonstrable uptick in mortality rates, and may therefore be called “bad” without too much qualification. In some states, over certain speeds, one ceases to be a civil offender and becomes instead a criminal, even a felon under the right circumstances. As far as I have found, in my home state of Texas, most speeding violations are low grade (Class-C) misdemeanors – criminal, in other words, but petty.
Should we not merely decriminalize, but legalize and regulate speeding? Should we offer speeding permits to drivers with many years of experience and properly inspected vehicles? Or is the arbitrary cut-off, the “Ok, now that is over the line” policy of progressively more criminal speeding offenses a better approach?
I can’t claim the expertise to answer these questions, but I raise them to make a specific point about the president’s position on pot: this is more than an issue of unfairness; it is an issue of endemic insubordination, and it is not the only one. It behooves us then, to look at similar situations of widespread violation of the law, especially those about which we have amassed a great deal of statistical evidence, in designing our policy, or we risk passing by a large body of useful and relevant information.