Pot Prohibitionists Will Have to Do Better Than Bill Bennett's BS

A couple of months ago, arguing in favor of marijuana prohibition at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), radio producer Christopher Beach faced a mostly hostile audience. "There used to be a strong conservative coalition opposed to drugs, but it's dissipated in the face of mounting public support for legalization," Beach told The Atlantic's Molly Ball afterward. "We're fighting against the tide on this." According to the headline of an essay by Beach and his boss, former drug czar Bill Bennett, in the May 5 issue of The Weekly Standard, they are also fighting "The Legalization Juggernaut," which presumably is moving with the tide. Beach and Bennett nevertheless argue that it's not too late to turn this juggernaut around. Maybe so, but they are going to need a bigger boat, or at least better arguments. Here are a few they should consider retiring:

The great political scientist James Q. Wilson staunchly opposed the legalization of drugs. He explained that "drug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul." No society should want unhealthy substances destroying the minds, bodies, character, and potential of its citizens.

As I note in my book Saying Yes, Wilson's explanation made no distinction between use and abuse, weirdly implying that consumption of psychoactive substances always (or at least usually) "enslaves the mind and destroys the soul," which was his tendentious description of addiction. Furthermore, Wilson conceded that alcohol poses the same sort of threat, which raises the obvious question of how it can be just to treat suppliers of beer, wine, and liquor as legitimate businessmen while treating suppliers of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as criminals.

No country in the history of the world has persevered in the legalization of drugs. None. We may learn the hard way why. 

You can't persevere in a policy you've never tried, and to date no country has legalized the drugs currently banned by the U.S. government, although Uruguay is moving toward legalization of marijuana. Then again, marijuana prohibition is a relatively recent development, dating to 1937 at the national level in the United States, and all of the currently proscribed drugs were legal for almost all of human history, which many people might consider a precedent of some significance. 

Even in states that have allowed only medicinal marijuana, use among young people has risen. 

If Beach and Bennett mean that cannabis consumption by teenagers has increased more in states with medical marijuana laws than in other states, they are wrong, according to a March 2012 study in Annals of Epidemiology, an October 2013 analysis in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, and an April 2014 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "This study did not find increases in adolescent marijuana use related to legalization of medical marijuana," say the authors of the most recent study, which was published online a couple of weeks ago.

Marijuana today is far more potent than it was in the 1960s and '70s....The more potent the drug the more dangerous its effects.

Not if you are concerned about the respiratory health effects of smoking, which is probably the most serious physical hazard posed by pot. The stronger the pot, the less you smoke to achieve the desired effect.

Even casual pot smoking has been linked to harmful brain abnormalities. An important new study by researchers at Northwestern University to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that young adults who smoked pot only once or twice a week still showed significant abnormalities in the part of the brain that deals with memory and motivation.

The study to which Beach and Bennett refer did not actually show that the "brain abnormalities" were harmful, or even that they were caused by marijuana.

Marijuana, of course, is a gateway drug. Even the authors of Marijuana Legalization admit that "kids who use marijuana—particularly those who start marijuana use at a young age—are statistically much more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use marijuana."

The authors of that book (Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark Kleiman) go on to say, "What is not at all clear, however, is whether marijuana use causes subsequent use of other drugs or whether it is merely a signal indicating the presence of underlying social, psychological, or physiological risk factors—such as weak parental supervision, a taste for intoxication, or a willingness to take risks—for both early marijuana use and later hard drug use."

Over the last 10 years, fatal car accidents involving people who were stoned have tripled, according to a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology

What the study actually found, based on data from six states, was that the share of drivers killed in car crashes who tested positive for cannabinol, a marijuana metabolite, rose from from 4.2 percent in 1999 to 12.2 percent in 2010. Cannabinol is not psychoactive and can be detected up to a week after marijuana consumption, so its presence does not indicate a driver was stoned at the time of the crash, let alone that marijuana contributed to it. During the same period, the total number of traffic fatalities declined. There is reason to believe legalizing marijuana could accelerate that downward trend, assuming that more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking.

On the subject of marijuana, Beach and Bennett note, "The shift in public opinion has been dramatic."  They cite recent polling data indicating majority support for legalization but say "we are convinced this headlong rush into disaster can be stopped—if, that is, political leaders can be found who have the nerve to take on the conventional wisdom." It is gratifying that pot prohibitionists feel compelled to portray themselves as underdogs, since most Americans disagree with them. But it seems they have not fully digested the implications of their new minority status, which means the same old moralistic assertions and scientific misrepresentations will no longer do. Drug warriors will have to step up their game now that they are in the unaccustomed position of needing to persuade people.

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]

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  • Austrian Anarchy||

    Some days the pot prohibitionists seem to be doing less damage than the advocates.

  • John||

    "drug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul."

    That is where these people go off the rails. Drugs do not enslave the mind or destroy the soul. The soul and the mind destroy themselves. The drugs are just the means. Take drugs away and the people who are destroying themselves using drugs today will just find some other method.

    Why do we know that is true? First, because time and again people move from one addiction to the next. Ask anyone who works in the rehab industry and they will tell you the problem is not the drugs it is the compulsive and self destructive behavior. If you don't solve that or figure out a way for the patient to solve that, the patient will either relapse once out of rehab or just find another outlet for their compulsive and self destructive nature.

    Second, we know that is true because the vast majority of people who use or have experimented with using drugs are not addicts, are not enslaved or in any way self destructive. If drugs truly "enslaved the mind and destroyed the soul", there wouldn't me millions of people out there, myself included, who tried drugs when they were younger and decided not to continue using them. Tell me Mr Wilson, how is it I never became enslaved? Am I just that special?

  • John||

    It disappoints me to see otherwise smart people on the right like Wilson and Jonah Goldberg to name two who should know better refuse to make drug users responsible for their actions and the harm they cause, when they do. That is really the bottom line here. People like Wilson want to give addicts a free pass from responsibility for being addicts by claiming drugs have this magical irresistible power to enslave people. Then, they want to throw said drug addicts in jail for doing something that their entire argument assumes is irresistible.

  • paranoid android||

    A conversation I've had too many times:

    "All drugs should be legal. The state has no right to regulate what people put in their bodies."

    "But drugs destroy lives! If drugs are legal then more people will try drugs and their lives will be ruined too."

    "You want people who try drugs to go to prison, doesn't prison also destroy lives?"

    "We need to put those people in prison to send a message to everyone else that doing drugs is not okay."

    "How has that strategy worked out for the past eight decades it has been tried?"

    At this point my interlocutor invariably does one of two things: stares at their shoelaces and suggests changing the subject, or, out of a sudden burst of "compassion" decides that the proper solution is prison for drug dealers, and compulsory medical treatment for drug users.

  • Zeb||

    Yep. Drugs don't destroy lives. People destroy their own lives, sometimes using drugs as a tool to make it happen. But there are plenty of other ways to ruin your life just as badly.

  • I can't trust my fans||

    All this time since the Jan 1 openings of recreational shops in Colorado, I had wondered, "Where's Bill Bennett?"

    I mean, it's not like the guy had died or anything. He has a daily radio show, for Pete's sake! But since he makes his money as a professional moralizer/gambling fiend (google it if you don't believe me), I have figured he's just too lazy to call his ghost writers (not including James Q. Wilson, who may actually have become a ghost, depending on what happens after we depart this vale of tears).

  • ||

    Marijuana today is far more potent than it was in the 1960s and '70s....The more potent the drug the more dangerous its effects.

    Although not a good reason to outlaw it the potency of today's pot is a very good reason to not smoke it.

    Holy fucking shit...never again.

  • Hyperion||

    No society King should want unhealthy substances destroying the minds, bodies, character, and potential of its citizens his subjects.

    Fixed it

  • Reverendcaptain||

    Yeah marijuana should be legal. All drugs should be legal. Better to let people destroy themselves with drugs than the state with prison.

    But just because you support legal marijuana shouldn't mean that you have a knee jerk reaction to any concerns about the negative effects of it or any other drug. I know that for myself, marijuana has a severely negative effect. I smoked for several years in my teens until I was about 20. Quitting was the best thing I ever did. I don't know what the physiological effects were exactly but it turns out that my particular personality or whatever, does not go well with it. I had long term problems with motivation, attitude etc that were dramatically reduced when I stopped smoking. Now you could argue that this was something limited specifically to me but I know that not to be the case simply from observing friends with the same problem.

    So yeah, legalize it all, but I would never give the impression to anybody that smoking pot doesn't have a negative impact. It's different from person to person and I've seen very successful people blaze up on a regular basis. But to deny the facts is nothing other than lying.

  • Bubba Jones||

    The prohibitionists often favor banning alcohol. They will only grudgingly admit that Prohibition was horrible, and will not admit the parallel to drug prohibition.

  • Matthew Cline||

    Furthermore, Wilson conceded that alcohol poses the same sort of threat, which raises the obvious question of how it can be just to treat suppliers of beer, wine, and liquor as legitimate businessmen while treating suppliers of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as criminals.

    Well, obviously we need to bring Prohibition back, since it worked so well the first time.

  • ||

    According to the Bible, during three of the most profound changes to our world; Creation, The Fall of man and The Flood, God took time out from all that was going on at the time to instruct man on a diet consisting of a green seed-bearing herb to be used as meat?

    1) Creation. Genesis ch1. During the Creation account: Genesis 1:29 - "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." vs 31 - "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." KJV

    2) The Fall of man. Genesis ch 3. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit, God said to Adam in ch 3:18 - "Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field…" Obviously this herb survived the curse from the fall of man that came into the world.

    3) The Flood. Genesis 9. After Noah's arc had safely landed in the new world - 9:1 "And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. 9:3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things."

    Not only did this herb survive the Fall, it also survived the Flood! Here in Genesis 9 God changes mans diet to include (certain) animals. Along with this drastic change we see God once again instructing man on continuing on with the green herb as

  • Robert||

    Beach told The Atlantic's Molly Ball afterward. "We're fighting against the tide on this." According to the headline of an essay by Beach and his boss, former drug czar Bill Bennett, in the May 5 issue of The Weekly Standard, they are also fighting "The Legalization Juggernaut," which presumably is moving with the tide.


    Needs moar sand!

  • politicsbyothermeans||

    Wondering when that booger-eating windowlicker from pooptech.net will magically appear to tell everyone that they hate science and are liars because they think marijuana should be legal.

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