Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pot Puffing Politicians: A Moral Issue

I recently came across a report of an exchange with a prominent politician, I think governor Cuomo, who had admitted to past marijuana use but was not a supporter of legalization; I have now lost track of the piece. It occurs to me that it raises an interesting issue in both morality and rhetoric.

Imagine that, like Cuomo and Obama, you have admitted to past pot use. You now have a problem. Politicians like to at least pretend that their policies are based on morality and justice, not merely political prudence. So you appear to face two alternatives:

1. The use of marijuana is not the sort of thing that people deserve to be punished for. Hence by supporting existing law you are in part responsible for unjustly imprisoning thousands of people, something of which you ought to be bitterly ashamed. Also something you should stop doing—immediately if not sooner.

2. The use of marijuana is the sort of thing people deserve to be punished for.  You used it, hence you deserve to be punished. Turning yourself in to the local jail immediately might be considered irresponsible, given other and even more binding obligations you face. But once your term is up, it is obviously your obligation, as a morally responsible individual, to do so. No doubt you can afford a lawyer to work out the details.

Have any politicians actually faced up to this problem and explained why they are unwilling to accept either of the two alternative conclusions?


Anonymous said...

A vaguely related issue is that of wealthy politicians who advocate higher tax rates. Nothing is stopping them from voluntarily "taxing" themselves - the Treasury accepts donations - but such people behave the same way as everyone else, i.e. acting to minimize their tax payments. This seems morally inconsistent but it's rarely questioned.

Anonymous said...

Well that's a false binary if there ever was one. Neither option is representative of the narrative of drug prohibition, the official mission of which is to protect the drug users -- users are not jailed because they deserve moral punishment, but for their own good, to protect them from themselves, to provide a counterincentive against an irresistible addiction, to provide rehabilitative services, supervision, assistance, monitoring, drug testing, etc. -- to help them help get their lives together, stop toking the reefer, and get a job.

It's very rare to see drug prohibition defended on the basis of the moral deserts of drug users, even if moral judgments are still made apparent. Often, the claim is that making marijuana more available would result in more use of other drugs. Thus the marijuana users aren't necessarily morally deserving of punishment: they just need to be forced to comply with a policy designed to provide a drug-free environment.

Brandon Berg said...

It's my understanding that people almost never actually go to prison for simple possession of marijuana--that people who actually go to prison are almost always either caught with quantities consistent with dealing or just had marijuana possession tacked on to some real crime.

So for marijuana, I'm not sure there's a basis for accusations of hypocrisy.

Putting that aside, what I would say is that the purpose of punishing people for drug use is to disincentivize it, and also to scare otherwise law-abiding users straight when they do get caught.

Neither of these two rationales really apply to someone who stopped using drugs twenty years ago. The latter for obvious reasons. You could argue that the threat of being thrown in jail twenty years later slightly increases the disincentive to use drugs, but the effect is probably pretty weak compared to the threat of being incarcerated right now.

Granted, I'm not in favor of the war on drugs in the first place, but I think there's a pretty strong case for a statute of limitations even if you don't support straight-up legalization.

That said, does anyone think that a de facto decriminalization of simple possession while still maintaining harsh penalties for dealing is just plain crazy? If you're going to make it so that only outlaws are willing to supply something, it's irresponsible to turn a blind eye to the demand side.

Anonymous said...

Focusing law enforcement efforts on dealers seems like the right approach strategically to eliminate the practice of drug use. Also, dealers are seen as victimizers, whereas users are seen (in a way, and by some) as victims.

I'll just add finally that the reality of law today is that it is not so much a codification of morals as a codification of police & prosecutorial powers.

Thomas said...

Well, I think it's a consequence of having a society that values equality before the law while consisting of people that are clearly NOT equal.

In times long gone we could have had a law prohibiting the use of marihuana for some people while allowing the use for others. Say, allowing it for high status people that have probably pretty good impulse control and prohibiting the use for low status / low impulse control people. That's not possible anymore. So we design a law that punishes people that are stupid enough to get caught as a proxy for low impulse control because these two conditions often overlap. A governor has a proven track record of being a functional member of human society so it shouldn't be surprising that he thinks a prohibition isn't really important for people like him. Which it isn't.

But if we do the principled libertarian thing, and decide to just make the use of marijuana legal for everybody, well, in the immortal words of jessi slaughter's dad: consequences will never be the same...

Paul Sand said...

An anecdote about a guy confronting Mayor Bloomberg about this sort of thing is here.

missprism said...

Moral reasoning isn't something politicians do. It's done to them by operatives of the other party. They either surf the wave, or wipe out.

jdgalt said...

Brandon Berg writes: That said, does anyone think that a de facto decriminalization of simple possession while still maintaining harsh penalties for dealing is just plain crazy? If you're going to make it so that only outlaws are willing to supply something, it's irresponsible to turn a blind eye to the demand side.

It is if you acknowledge that demand (by rational and uncoerced adults) exists. But if you believe that no sane person would ever voluntarily use drugs without a doctor's orders unless he's being deceived in some way, then it makes sense to punish the sellers while letting users go, especially if you compel the users to go through "treatment" (abstinence indoctrination) as a condition of clemency.

This is why ONDCP pushes so hard to prevent Hollywood from making films or TV shows that depict drug use as normal. Show voters that drug sellers and users aren't their enemies (until forced into that role by the law) and you blow away the whole moral foundation of prohibition.

Ron said...

There is one thing that gets the pols off the hook: statute of limitations.

Joseph said...

I suspect much of the support for the War on Some Drugs comes from former dope smokers who are embarrassed about it now. They may think of libertarianism as the irresponsible-twit ideology.

Anonymous said...

When you step back from the issue,(for me I stepped into a 5 year sentence for 32 grams) its an industry. An a very profitable one. From lawyers, drug test companies, privately owned prisons, phone companies charging 2$ a minute(MCI), inmate labor and something more even more unspoken. You loose you "RIGHT" to vote and own a gun.32 grams cost me 40 thousand dollars. I plead to the charge to keep my wife from going to prison(she died of breast cancer 2 months after I got out) I live in a state with no medical marijuana laws and it was our Dr who told me he could prescribe Marinol (lab produced THC at 56$ a pill) or to to buy some pot. We had no medical insurance so....the problem is there is no morality. Morality capitalism or health capitalism at work