The title of this installment of my continuing "hidden in plain sight" rants is a little "shout-out" to late, and unfortunately very troubled, R&B icon Rick James, although I can unequivocally state that unlike him, I am not "in love with Mary Jane." (I just don't care if you are.) In those other installments I examined some phenomena of the ignorance of the people combined with the duplicity of the state. In this offering, I look at another issue: the drug war generally and medical marijuana specifically. While subtle questions — involving the national debt, national security, immigration, imperialism, torture, the rule of law — are possibly open to debate, I am sure we would all like to believe the basics are well-understood by everyone is this great land of ours.
For example, given that terrorism is a tactic and terror is an emotional response, I'm confident everyone — even the guys at Faux News — understands that waging war against either is patently impossible. One can only wage a shooting war against a physical adversary. Maybe marketing wars and invasions is easier if one can conjure up images of Rambo, but really, how can anyone reasonably expect to wage war on a methodology? Since a tactic is "a method employed to help achieve a certain goal," any ostensible "war" can, by definition, only be waged with propaganda and education. Simply put, a war of ideas is fought on the battlefield of the mind and heart. Ergo, actually shooting people and/or dropping bombs is barking lunacy.
So the state's techniques for waging wars, even wars of ideas, are often specious. But even if that's true, at least when the state seeks to protect us from the consumption of dangerous goods, we know that the motivations are correct, don't we? I'd like to agree that, "at least their hearts are in the right place" but that conclusion is hard to reach.
There is No Reasonable Justification for Medical Marijuana to be Illegal
I've noted the lunacy of the drug war previously. And in this regard I am far from alone. Just a quick search turns up an essay from Anthony Gregory and several fact-packed articles from Paul Armentano. (And these are far from the only essays on the subject available around here.) Even if one cannot accept the logic and supporting statistics regarding why "hard" drugs like cocaine and heroin should be legalized, surely the issue of marijuana generally and medical marijuana specifically is different.
The amount of information about the relative benign-ness of weed is voluminous. Ironically, quite a bit of the proof of why marijuana should be legalized was funded by the same government that keeps it illegal. What possible reason can be used for the continued stance supporting illegality for this substance? Is the FDA really that much of a toadie for the pharmaceutical industry? (Don't answer that.)
Maybe I'm just dense, but I cannot figure out why this fight against marijuana in general, much less medical marijuana specifically, makes sense, regardless of marijuana's safety or lack thereof. Smoking is allowed, yet cigarettes — or more accurately, cigarette-related illnesses — supposedly kill many people. Mood alteration is allowed, as evidenced by not only the ready availability of every conceivable type of alcohol, but also the massive marketing of anti-depressants, sleep aids, and the like. Neither smoking nor mood alteration are unlawful.
But somehow smoking a plant that (reportedly) provides both is worthy of being shot by some guy dressed for being dropped out of a chopper over Afghanistan. What logic qualifies the state to decide for me about marijuana while simultaneously letting me decide for myself about malt liquor and Marlboro?
The issue of freedom to make the choice is but one concern however. The other problem is the iron fist with which the "drug war" is fought. In his 1999 book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself," Bill Bryson recited some fascinating statistics on the results of the drug war. Two in particular stuck out for me.
- Approximately 60% of America's prison population is there for a "non-violent" offense, typically involving drugs.
- A first-time offender is more likely to get more time for a drug offense than for a violent felony. In fact, allow me to quote Bryson:
"According to a 1990 study, 90 percent of all first-time [drug] offenders in federal courts were sentenced to an average of five years in prison. Violent first-time offenders, by contrast, were imprisoned less often and received an average of just four years in prison."
One might argue that Bryson is far from an expert on drug use, law enforcement, or government. From my standpoint the drug war and the issues involved are simple enough that such expertise is not required. One might also argue that the dangers of "hard" drugs like cocaine are so extreme that treating their use harshly is warranted. Regardless of any real or imagined danger with these substances, the fact remains that each of us is responsible for our own decisions. As such, if you're in your basement doing a few lines, I respect you enough to let you decide for yourself. The responsibility is yours, not mine.
If we are really so concerned about something like drug usage, while simultaneously less concerned when someone "kicks an old lady down a stairwell" — to paraphrase Bryson — we've got serious issues with proportionality regardless of the scientific or legal or sociological details. Caging such a high number of otherwise lawful citizens in U.S. rape rooms is itself criminal! Still, because Bryson's statement, as quoted above, seemed so outrageous, I did a little checking. I did not find the study he mentioned, but I did not come up empty. To-whit:
- The overwhelming majority of people in prison are there for drug offenses. As of September 30, 2000, for the year in question, 129,329 offenders were serving a prison sentence in federal prison; 57% were incarcerated for a drug offense; 10% for a violent offense; 8% for a weapon offense; 8% for a property offense, 11% for an immigration offense; and 6% for all other offenses. (Reference: Federal Criminal Case Processing, 2000)
- The overwhelming majority of people in prison for drugs are also non-violent offenders. According to official statistics from the NYS Dept of Correctional Services (DOCS), nearly 80% of drug offenders in prison have never been convicted of a violent felony; about half have never even been arrested for one. (Reference: Myths and Facts About the Rockefeller Drug Laws)
- Drug offenses account for a higher percentage of people in federal prison than weapons, extortion, homicide, robbery and burglary combined. For 2006 53.7% were drug offenders, 14.2% were weapons offenders, 5.4% were robbery offenders, 3.8% were burglary offenders, 4.2% were extortion offenders, and 3.1% were homicide offenders. (Reference: Federal Bureau of Prisons: Quick Facts 2006)
- Punishment for first-time offenders is generally higher if the offense is a drug-related. (Reference: Cruel & Unusual Punishment)
- In New York State specifically, the minimum sentence given to a first-time drug felon is the same as that for a murderer. The minimum sentence for a first-time offender guilty of selling two ounces of cocaine is 15 years to life — the same sentence as given to a convicted murderer. (Reference: Who Goes to Prison for Drug Offenses?)
As a result of these facts, prison populations in the U.S. continue to climb. Certainly one could argue that the propaganda to which we all respond is partially responsible for both the prevalence and the acceptance of mandatory sentencing laws. Still, even if the state made a slight miscalculation regarding drug use generally and medical marijuana specifically, that's no reason to think they aren't effective in other ways, right? Wrong.
Statists might argue that people need protecting and that the best way to do that is via laws passed by an informed legislative branch. But is that true? The words of that Hertz commercial come to mind here: "Not exactly." And let me ask you honestly, if a person develops a drug problem due to his own choices and subsequently gets stuck in some maximum-security hellhole how much "protection" have we afforded him? And when he returns to society, is anyone better off for it?
Exactly whom are we trying to protect?
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.