David Frum Defends Obama's Decision to Prosecute People for Using the Same Drugs He Did, Reveals He Knows Little to Nothing About Drug Policy

Former George W. Bush speechwriter and American Enterprise Institute fellow David Frum delivered a free Twitter lecture this morning on the glories of prohibition. The lecture started with this Tweet: "I hope none of the conservatives mocking Obama’s membership in HS 'choom gang' supported Mitch Daniels for presidency..."

And continued thusly: 

  • "Not hypocritical to experiment w drugs in early life, recoil, and as a mature adult favor prohibition."
  • "The point of drug laws is not to punish ,but to deter. Those w least social resources who benefit most fr being warned away."
  • "Agree about harms of mass incarceration - but that's not about drug use, it's about drug traffic, and more serious crime."

The first point, about Mitch Daniels, who once admitted to enjoying pot in college then refused to run for president, has been addressed quite handily by the Washington Free Beacon's Sonny Bunch

Let’s leave aside the fact that most conservatives and libertarians are not arguing that this disqualifies Obama for the presidency; most are just making fun of the president for being in something as ridiculous as “the Choom Gang.” No president would escape mockery for something like this.

Instead, let’s look at Frum’s argument that this isn’t hypocrisy on Obama’s part because we grow up and mature and change our views. But this kind of misses the point, no? It’s not so much that people think he’s a hypocrite for turning against pot smoking as an adult—it’s that people think he’s a hypocrite because they don’t actually think he thinks smoking pot is a big deal. He’s continuing the crackdown on weed for purely political reasons and ruining people’s lives in the process. He lacks the political courage to change an obviously broken system despite the fact that he has personal experience with the product being debated.

I'll go both pundits one more: Obama did not turn against pot smoking as an adult, he turned against it at the point in his political career when he had the most power to change policy. As a state congressman in Illinois, Obama declared the drug war a failure. He said the same thing as a U.S. Senator. As a candidate for president, he condemened (and promised to stop) medical marijuana raids. Really, Obama did not come to favor prohibition until he became president. If Frum wants to argue that Obama did not reach maturity until that moment, I won't stop him, but I would also like him to explain what hope that leaves everybody else—David Frum included. 

The rest of his tweets show a pretty astounding ignorance of how the drug war is conducted and how shadow economies function. My favorite response to Frum's lecture snidely reflects all of the above: "do you ever go outside?"

But let's take Frum point by point, in hopes that the people who believe he is the last sane conservative will somehow see this, Reason's message in a bottle. 

"The point of drug laws is not to punish, but to deter. Those w least social resources who benefit most fr being warned away."

To say that the point of "drug laws it not to punish, but to deter," is to say that the point of laws against murder are not to punish, but to deter; that laws against theft are not to punish, but to deter; that laws against rape are not to punish, but to deter. 

Actually the point of a law is to establish what behaviors the State finds unacceptable and empower it to punish people who engage in those behaviors. A legislator can hope that laws will deter people from doing action x, but in the event they do not, laws are what allow agents of the State to handcuff someone who does action x, try him, and put him in a cage. That is by far their most useful property. Everything else--deterrence, societal correction, mercy, justice--is a social construction.  

"Agree about harms of mass incarceration - but that's not about drug use, it's about drug traffic, and more serious crime."

This Tweet, in response to a user who pointed out that America's drug laws have helped it to build a prison population larger than Stalinist Russia's, makes me think Frum never read his old website, the one he named after himself, where he published an article that began as follows

Picture a drug dealer in your mind. What does he look like? Whatever the image is, it’s probably not going to be a young white male wearing this summer’s latest footwear, and an untucked “secret wash button-down Coral tattersall” shirt from J. Crew. Doubtful, too, your imagination pictures him as putting aside a copy of Vitruvius’s On Architecture so he can measure out a dime bag of weed. But if you’re young and out to get high, this is probably whom you’re buying from.

State and local governments have indeed attached more serious penalties to drug trafficking than to possession or use, which could lead someone who has never engaged in the former, and seldomly in the latter, to think that one is inherently more "serious" (read: "bad") than the other. But as Frum's own site revealed less than a year ago, the line between pusher and junkie is thin, and growing ever thinner as the decreased stigma of using a drug leads heads with an entrepreneurial spirit to supplement their income by selling the stuff in modest quantities. 

And Frum better believe that incarceration is still very much about drug use. While you won't serve much, if any, time on a federal marijuana possession charge, you can still do serious time in state and federal prison for coke, meth, oxy, heroin, LSD, ecstacy, and/or crack possession charges. City and county jails, meanwhile, are full of pot heads doing 30, 60, and 90 day sentences for possession that will live forever on their permanent records.  

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  • daveInAustin||

    Please tell me that Mr. Frum is trying to be ironic.

  • Loki||

    He is a hipster, so it's entirely possible that he is just being ironic. Although I get the distinct impression that most hipsters don't know what that word means. Which is itself pretty ironic.

  • Spiny Norman||

    Really, Obama did come to favor prohibition until he became president.

    Did not?

  • John||

    In some sense Frum is right. Suppose you were a chronic speeder when you were young and then grew up and decided to drive a more safe speed. Would anyone call you a hypocrite for then supporting speed limits? I don't think so.

    So the mere fact that Frum used drugs as a younger person doesn't make him a hypocrite. What does make him a hypocrite is that he never bothers to explain why he personally was wrong to use drugs and how that drug use harmed him. That part seems to be missing from Frum's account. Everyone is allowed to make a mistake, learn from it, and then share that lesson with the rest of the world without being called a hypocrite.

    But Frum doesn't seem to understand much less explain why his personal drug use was such a mistake. What did Frum learn from using drugs that caused him to change his mind and think they should be illegal? He never explains that. And that just makes him a "rules for the little people but not for me" hypocrite.

  • CockGobbla||

    What's key to Frum's nonsense is whether or not drug use is a "mistake" worth criminalizing. I'd argue that drug use is incredibly stupid, but we allow others to learn from other stupid mistakes, so why not drug use?

  • John||

    That is just it. He never bothers to explain why he thinks his behavior was so bad that it should be considered criminal.

  • CockGobbla||

    And like you said, Frum thinks it is okay for important people like Obama and Frum to experiment and learn the harsh realities of their mistakes, but the rest of us proles have to be looked after by Nanny Government.

  • Robert||

    No, he's just saying nothing can be changed about the past.

  • Pi Guy||

    Or why it' a "mistake" in any sense at all...

  • Brandon||

    Frum's talking about Obama, not himself. And yes, if you were a "chronic" speeder when you were younger and then became a frightened little bitch when you "grew up", absent some sort of catastrophic accident caused exclusively by speeding, I would call you a hypocrite and a scared little bitch for supporting something that punished people for something you used to do on a regular basis without harm.

  • John||

    That is bullshit. We all do things that we later realize were mistakes. If I was a chronic speeder, I don't have to get into an accident to realize it is a stupid way to do things. And I am not a hypocrite for admitting I made a mistake.

    By your standard, no one can ever learn from a mistake without being a hypocrite.

  • Brandon||

    Bullshit? Really? Becoming afraid of something does not make it a mistake. And changing your mind about something does not mean that what you thought before was stupid. It is not self-evident that speeding, as defined by "exceeding the posted speed limit on any given road," is stupid, nor is it self-evident that drug use in and of itself is stupid. Zealously supporting punishment for other people just because you've changed your mind about something is the height of hypocrisy.

  • John||

    You are completely missing the point Brandon. You are right, using drugs isn't self evidently stupid. And that is why it is on Frum to explain why he thinks what he did was so bad as to warrant it being criminal.

  • Randian||

    Zealously supporting punishment for other people just because you've changed your mind about something is the height of hypocrisy.

    Really? So if I once thought that water boarding was not torture, but I now I think it is, and I advocated for the zealous prosecution of those who are now, to me, torturers, that places me at the "height of hypocrisy"?

    John is right: it's permissible to change your mind. But you have to explain a) why you did change your mind and b) explain how your life would have been better had you been punished in such a manner as you yourself now support.

  • Brandon||

    No, but if you once actively participated in water boarding, then the day you stopped actively participating in water boarding you began saying that anyone who actively participates in water boarding should be put in prison, you would be a hypocrite. There's nothing hypocritical about changing your mind, but there is about wanting other people to be punished for something you did and were not punished for, especially if it's something you still think *you* should not be punished for. There's that whole "law for thee, but not for me" thing.

  • John||

    That is bullshit. You can say "I should have gone to prison but didn't." As long as you admit that what you did was a crime and that you deserved to be punished but got lucky, you are not a hypocrite.

  • mnarayan||

    I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure I agree. If you steal a million dollars, and then say that people should not steal, but you just got lucky, I would say that's hypocritical.

    That said, I don't think Frum (or Obama) are necessarily being hypocritical here (though certainly despicable and inconsistent), as I do think that the saying and doing parts of hypocrisy need to occur at least roughly co-temporally.

  • Randian||

    I guess a reformed murderer in prison cannot be for murder laws then.

    Your point makes absolutely no sense.

  • Randian||

    To address this more squarely, let's say that I am Red Boyd and I just got out of prison after a long stint in The Shank. I hear about a guy who cut the brakes on his wife's car and I advocate for the death penalty for him. That isn't the punishment I received for that crime. Does that make me a hypocrite?

  • Brandon||

    If you're Red Boyd, do you think you deserved the death penalty for cutting your wife's brakes? Do you have a good, articulable reason for advocating a harsher punishment than you received, beyond "Fuck you, that's why (Frum's reasoning)?" Because if not, then yes, that would make you a hypocrite. Really, it's hypocritical either way, but having a rational, well thought out reason for your change of heart mitigates the hypocrisy.

  • Brandon||

    My point makes absolutely no sense? Have you read your posts? A reformed murderer in prison is *IN PRISON!* In other words, he is being punished for a murder he committed. So no, there is no problem with him being for murder laws. This would be more akin to OJ Simpson, a murderer who was put on trial and acquitted, wanting to alter the law to make an accusation of murder enough to put someone in prison starting now. I'm not saying you can't change your mind, but if you're changing your mind so that other people are treated worse than you were in the same situation, you are a fucking hypocrite, and it does reduce your credibility. If you have a good reason for your hypocrisy, explain it, and if it is a convincing, well thought out rationale, that might mitigate the hypocrisy. But the shit spilling from Frum's keyboard here does not come close to meeting that threshold.

  • R C Dean||

    Speeding is perhaps a difficult example, as damn near everyone was a speeder back in the 55 mph days.

    Now that its 70 - 75 on most highways here in Texas, I am no longer a chronic violator of the speed limit laws, even though I haven't changed how fast I drive.

    If I'm driving 15 mph over the limit now (that is, 85 - 90 mph), then I wouldn't complain too much if I got tagged with a hefty fine. Before the law was changed, I would have been driving, well, 70 mph, and would have reason to be pissed.

    So, my views on speeding enforcement changed because the laws changed.

    Drug laws have gone the other way, which makes it harder to say that you don't have some 'splainin to do when you go from violating a relatively lax law, to slavering for hard time for others under a harsher law.

  • Robert||

    The onlhy good point in this entire blog entry is Riggs's that Obama is just a liar -- that he has not in fact changed his mind about drug use, but just pretended to at the exact instant he thought such a pretense would benefit him.

  • Adam330||

    I'd call you a hypocrite if you supported the following penalties for speeding, yet came to your current position only because you were lucky enough not to get caught and suffer them: 1) jail time; 2) loss of access to numerous public benefits like education loans, public housing, etc.; 3) loss of ability to get a security clearance; 4) loss of ability to get a government job; 5) deportation for non-citizens.

  • ant1sthenes||

    From Wikipedia:
    Hypocrisy is the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have.[1] Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches.

    That said, unless Obama truly had a change of heart about the dangers of weed, he's simply using the drug war as a political convenience, and that makes him a hypocrite.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    I have to disagree. The hypocrisy still stands if one establishes that doing drugs is a really bad decision (unless you believe all really bad decisions should be illegal, and given its Frum we're talking about, that's not out of the realm of possibility). What one has to establish is that doing drugs victimizes others.

  • JW||

    "Not hypocritical to experiment w Frum in early life, recoil, and as a mature adult favor sterilization."

    Fixed.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Sorry, but it IS hypocritical, in the sense that Obama got away with doing what he did *and* eventually got elected to the highest office in the land - whereas people who did what he did, in some cases, cannot get past a criminal background check for a job.

    How many people could get into the military after admitting Obama's level of admitted drug use? Or other government jobs, for that matter?

  • ||

    it's also hypocritical in the sense that their position is that all drug use has these terrible side effects and you'll fuck your life up good and proper. There's no acknowledgment that you can use, have fun, and move on and become, say, President

  • BakedPenguin||

    "Don't smoke pot; you could become a really shitty President and ruin the lives of millions."

  • Mr. FIFY||

    What you guys said.

  • WTF||

    When you smoke pot, you get big ideas.
    When you get big ideas, you go to Harvard Law on Affirmative Action.
    When you go to Harvard Law on Affirmative Action, you become a shitty con law instructor and Community Organizer.
    When you become a shitty con law instructor and Community Organizer, you make corrupt political connections.
    When you make corrupt political connections, you become a really shitty President and ruin the lives of millions.

    Don't become a really shitty President and ruin the lives of millions.

    Just say no to drugs.

  • Loki||

    +100

  • Mr. FIFY||

    I see what you did there, WTF.

  • NotSure||

    So its to deter not punish people according to this guy, and how does the government go about doing this, by punishing them.

    Most politicians are not about principle but about vote calculation, if becomes clear that being pro drugs will win lots of votes, is anyone in doubt that he will evolve on the issue.

  • John||

    If it is about deterent, how about this idea. Why don't we prosecute Frum for his admitted drug use. Wouldn't telling kids "it doesn't matter if you get away with it, you can always be arrested for your drug use later in life" serve as one hell of a deterrent? I would think Frum should be happy to go to jail and get a conviction on his record in return for really making a point about drug use.

  • Randian||

    ha ha, I like this idea.

  • Robert||

    Nah. Deterrents are useless after too long a delay. Most places even have statutes of limitations on murder, though for reasons I don't understand, none of the United States do.

    This is why children are not deterred from actions having chronic detrimental effects on health. they realize that over a long enough time, cause becomes severed from effect.

  • CockGobbla||

    What kills me about Frum is not his conservative credentials, it's that his taken on the mantle "last sane conservative left" and has courted support from the Left.

    Keep in mind that Frum wants conservatives to return to the Bush-era Big Government Conservatism that drove Lefties crazy for 8 years. Now, he's a darling among many on the Left.

  • John||

    If conservatives ever got into power again, they would drive liberals mad no matter what they did. Frum is just a concern troll.

  • Brandon||

    This. And all the "Big government" complaints would disappear overnight, replaced with earnest concerns about "Civil Rights" coming in the other ear.

  • ||

    John McCain has been making a career of this for years because most Republicans would vote for Karl Marx if he had an R next to his name.

  • Brandon||

    Most Republicans would think he had a lot of good ideas if his name hadn't already been associated with team BLUE.

  • John||

    McCain completely rode his status as a war hero.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    If he seriously thought he could get away with it, Obama might pretend that he later discovered how bad drugs are, and that he is astonished how narrowly he escaped from all the horrible things drugs do to you, and he could throw in a few composite friends who died horrible deaths after smoking too much weed, or who killed off so many brain cells that they started babbling about 57 states. So he's trying to rescue other young people from the horrible things he himself only escaped by the skin of his teeth, etc.

    If he said this, and we thought it was true, we wouldn't think him a hypocrite.

    Yet I doubt this is the scenario, and it's so implausible I don't think he'll even try to claim it. What I think instead is that he decided to placate voters and the law-enforcement establishment and thereby avoid Republican "soft on drugs" attacks which might peel away the soccer moms.

    Of course, this strategy means ignoring his campaign promises on medical MJ, but he probably figures the medical MJ supporters are such hardcore lefties that they'll vote for him anyway. He can simply lull them with assuring noises about how he wants a dialogue, and he is, too, keeping his promises! (He may have had Bill Clinton's help in reinterpreting plain words).

  • some guy||

    He would still be a hypocrite because he refuses to give people the same chance to "recoil" and "mature" without consequences that he had. If his drug policy was to simply confiscate and destroy the product, he wouldn't be a hypocrite. But he is as long as his policy involves prisons and permanent records, the things that would have ruined his life had he been caught.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    He also admits to drunk driving - I presume he isn't locked into legalizing drunk driving simply because he didn't get caught.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

  • Joe R.||

    Democrats don't care about that. Even if you drown someone in the process.

  • some guy||

    I'm not saying he has to be locked into legalizing marijuana. I'm saying he is locked into de-criminalizing it. That way he's still anit-drugs but not also anti-drug-users.

    Naturally I would prefer it if he was pro-legalize, but right now I'm just talking about how he can cease being a hypocrite on this issue.

  • Adam330||

    If he thinks that prison sentences are appropriate for drunk driving, and he admitted to doing drunk driving and has not yet served his prison sentence, then I expect him to report to the nearest prison. Otherwise, he's a hypocrite.

  • Robert||

    No, he'll give them the same chance. As long as they don't get caught and the statute of limitations runs out, they're in the clear. Same chance as he had.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    And I would love to hear him explain how he won't defend some acts of Congress (like DoMA) which he considers unconstitutional, but he will cheerfully defend and enforce the federal drug laws. Of course, the expansive definition of interstate commerce is very useful to him with Obamacare.

  • Randian||

    Answered your own question on that one.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    If the point of drug laws are to deter, not punish, then why are so many drug offenses criminal offenses, and not civil infractions? There's obviously a moral element attached to the drug laws.

    And of course, the idea that every "criminal" is an armchair economist weighing up all the consequences and calculating risk vs. reward is just ridiculous. But if the drug war wasn't ridiculous, it just wouldn't be a war.

  • CockGobbla||

    See, the mistake you made was trying to engage Frum's arguments on an intellectually honest level instead of realizing them for the desperate ramblings of a pro-Big Government conservative facing the harsh reality that his time is up.

  • some guy||

    If the drug warriors were smart they would make it so that simple possession was not a criminal offense. Then they could continue to have their drug war without producing a lot of collateral damage for their opponents to point to. Maybe we should be happy that they went for broke and now seem to be losing a lot of ground.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    I wonder about this too. Personally, the stigma of a criminal record is a much greater threat to me than a fine, mostly due to occupational licensing requirements, and because I can afford the fine. In Ann Arbor, pot possession was only a $25 first time civil infraction, with third time on capped at $100. There wasn't the outrage there that you see in, say, Texas or Georgia where sentences are harsh, but that's anecdotal.

  • Brett L||

    Fuck off, slaver.

  • Voros McCracken||

    "The point of drug laws is not to punish ,but to deter. Those w least social resources who benefit most fr being warned away."

    The audacity in making such a statement astounds me.

  • WTF||

    It's the audacity of hope.

  • R C Dean||

    Yeah, you hardly ever see someone saying that disproportionately punishing the poor and disadvantaged is a feature, not a bug.

  • Voros McCracken||

    It's Frum's Judge Smails moment: "I've sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn't want to do it. I felt I owed it to them."

  • some guy||

    "audacity"

    The political class has this in nearly infinite supply.

  • TomAngell||

    I really, really wish people who want to change the failed drug laws would STOP saying that it requires "courage" to support reform or that there are good "political reasons" for ramping up the crackdown. In reality, poll after poll shows that 80 percent of the public supports medical marijuana and that a majority favor legalizing marijuana altogether. It's not a sign of political savvy to oppose something which enjoys greater support from the public than either candidate for president does. It's pure idiocy.

  • some guy||

    First, the voting public is only a subsection of the public. The voting public is older, whiter and less supportive of marijuana.

    Second, the drug warriors spend a lot more money on politics than their opponents.

  • TomAngell||

    The polling I'm referring to is of likely voters. See, for ex, http://www.rasmussenreports.co....._marijuana

  • some guy||

    Ah, ok. I didn't realize the numbers were that high yet with likely voters.

    Still you can't deny the outsized pull of the law enforcement/prohibition lobbies.

  • fried wylie||

    I can't take seriously anything written with so many texting-abbreviation.

    or, TooStupid;DidntRead.

  • fried wylie||

    how large is the dose of irony that any (so-called) professional writer would even try to espouse any sort of position via heavily abbreviated twitter posts?

  • Robert||

    All the good stuff in this blog entry is before the jump.

    Rigg's statement about criminal laws in general is vapid, circular. Sorry, but on this point Frum is right: Most people who favor these laws do so for reasons of deterrence. When deterrence fails, you have to go thru with the damage, or the threat of deterrence is lost, even though in the instant case the damage is a loss all around.

    As to the drug dealer profile, I see no contradiction between the quote from the earlier Frum and what he's saying in the instant material.

  • Adam330||

    That may be. But to support the policy, a politician has to believe that the follow through punishment is just. And to be just, if a politician has engaged in that activity, he must accept the penalty for himself, even if he managed to not get caught. If he doesn't, he's a hypocrite.

  • FreeLibertine||

    The way I see it, if Obama wants to support the drug war now, than he should turn himself in for his past crimes against the state and take the punishment imposed for breaking the law. Otherwise Obama is a total hypocrite.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    What you said, FL.

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