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

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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.