Flipping through A Time to Fight, the new book by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), reason contributor Daniel McCarthy finds some passages about drug policy he considers encouraging, saying they indicate "a better, more humane policy than what the Clintonites and Republicans are offering," one that's "about as good as what Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr has been saying lately." I disagree.
Webb's observations about opium in Afghanistan are perfectly sensible as far as they go:
The reality is that the opium production in Afghanistan is an example of basic market economics at work. The Afghanis grow opium, sometimes in fields so vast that they resemble the rice paddies of Vietnam, because there is a foreign market for their crops, a market that they could not duplicate with any other known product.
If you want to reduce the opium cop, you'll have to find a way to reduce the demand for heroin at its destination point.
Here Webb gets points for candor, I guess, but it's sad that politicians are deemed praiseworthy simply for acknowledging the plain truth. And when it comes to policy prescriptions, Webb does not sound any better than Barack Obama or, for that matter, a "compassionate" drug warrior like Joe Califano, president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse:
The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana. It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement [against] gang-related activities. We should also fully fund the increasingly popular concept of drug courts, where drug offenders are allowed to enter treatment instead of prison and have their drug offense expunged from their records if they successfully complete treatment….
Drug addiction is not in and of itself a criminal act. It is a medical condition, indeed a disease, just as alcoholism is, and we don't lock people up for being alcoholics. Most Americans understand this distinction, even though the political process seems paralyzed when it comes to finding remedies to address it. Our country urgently needs more funding and more treatment centers for treating this disease, not more prison cells for punishing people who have fallen into conduct that, at bottom, is more harmful to themselves than it is to our society.
That first sentence would make sense if it had been written, say, 40 years ago, when simple possession of marijuana was still a felony in most states. Nowadays, it is not true that the government is "locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," if by "locking up people" Webb means sending them to prison (as opposed to making them spend a night in jail after arresting them). If Webb had said "the time has come to stop arresting people for mere possession and use of marijuana," that would represent progress, since around 830,000 people still get nabbed for marijuana possession each year, an experience that entails substantial costs, even if they don't include serving time. But any politician who today says people should not go to prison merely for smoking pot is not advocating any real change in policy.
Califano, who passes off minor twiddling with the status quo as a "revolution" in his prohibitionist screed High Society, would also be perfectly comfortable with the rest of Webb's comments, equating drug addiction with disease and justifying forced re-education of drug users. As I said in my review of Califano's book, this pseudomedical talk is a way of asserting that drug users' wishes and choices need not be respected because they are symptoms of a disease. Even if we accept the disease model of addiction, Webb and Califano display an irrational prejudice against certain kinds of addicts. After all, neither advocates forcing alcoholics into "treatment" under threat of imprisonment (unless they commit a crime such as driving while intoxicated).
For that matter, neither advocates alcohol prohibition based on the observation that some people drink too much. Yet both are committed to the continued arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of people who participate in the production and distribution of the currently illegal intoxicants. These are the people who represent the vast majority of the half a million drug offenders who are currently behind bars in this country. According to Califano, they deserve sympathy only if they happen to consume the product they sell. Because then they're "sick," you see.
John McCain is certifiably awful on the drug issue, refusing even to say that states should be free to set their own policies regarding the medical use of marijuana, a popular, eminently conservative position that would not require him to say anything nice about cannabis. Obama, by contrast, has promised to stop interfering with state decisions in this area, and he otherwise sounds at least as good as Webb. He seems similarly confused about which drug offenders go to prison, saying (through a spokesman) "we are sending far too many first-time, nonviolent drug users to prison for very long periods of time" (emphasis added). A few years ago, he said he thought marijuana laws should be "decriminalized," which at the very least ought to mean citing pot smokers instead of arresting them, but lately he has waffled on the question. Bob Barr, a former hard-line prohibitionist, has been evasive about the drug policies he supports at the state level, but he seems to favor ending the federal war on drugs, which would be a huge improvement, leaving states free to experiment with various approaches. That goes much further than either Webb or Obama has ever suggested.