The Prohibitionist Curse

Success softened drug warriors' arguments. Now failure has exposed them.


Economists specializing in international development have identified what they call the "resource curse": Contrary to expectations, an abundance of lucrative natural resources is often associated with poor economic performance. Although you'd think that sitting on trillions of gallons of oil would make your country richer, overreliance on a single sector tends to blunt development in others while inviting both corruption and laziness from those who control the taps. If a ruling class can safely siphon off profits from a guaranteed moneymaker, what incentive is there to liberalize or otherwise ignite broad-based prosperity?

Resource-free countries such as Japan, Switzerland, and Singapore get rich by relying on trade and brain work instead of brute extraction, while resource-swollen countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela remain poor, corrupt, and illiberal. Having a built-in advantage can become a hindrance if, to paraphrase Jim Hightower's crack about George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, you're born on third base thinking you hit a triple. Those who have to hustle for their supper tend to be more industrious and creative; those who don't will coast for as long as they can get away with it.

There are exceptions to this tendency. The United States, Canada, and Australia haven't let natural resources prevent them from getting rich. Nor have Cambodia and Bangladesh benefited noticeably from their comparative dearth. But as the decline of newspaper companies, the humbling of sports dynasties, and the demise of onetime monopolies such as Kodak illustrate, success can mask deep flaws and smother any urgency to fix them. When the conditions fueling success change quickly-when technology creates a better delivery system for a popular activity, or when the price of oil plummets-the battered incumbents can suddenly look ridiculous, anachronistic, and bankrupt.

The same goes for political commentators, as the opening of recreational marijuana stores in Colorado last January laid bare for all to see. The dead-enders still clamoring for prohibition in a country quickly leaving them behind demonstrated the intellectual rot caused by being on the winning side too long.

On January 3, two days after Colorado's state-licensed pot shops opened their doors, New York Times columnist and "national greatness" authoritarian David Brooks published a piece that, after detailing his own youthful pot smoking, pivoted to an explanation of why making such transgressions punishable by life-ruining encounters with the criminal justice system is good for the moral fabric of society. "We now have a couple states-Colorado and Washington -that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use," Brooks wrote. That sentence was precisely as accurate as a mocking response from Gawker's John Cook: "We now have a couple states that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging David Brooks."

Brooks continued: "Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I'd say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned."

There is nothing at all subtle about the way our government "tip[s] the scale" against "lesser pleasures." The encouragement that Brooks favors involves stripping people of their dignity and liberty for doing what Brooks used to do. It requires imprisoning people who assist that activity by supplying the dried vegetable matter that Brooks once enjoyed but now abjures. Such "nurturing" is part of a historically unprecedented mass incarceration system that disproportionately targets poor minorities while creating a black market that generates murderous violence and other culture-degrading pathologies.

While Brooks ignored the brutal human cost of criminalizing the ingestion of disfavored substances, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly denied that such criminal penalties even exist. On January 6, O'Reilly-the most-watched cable news personality for a decade running-claimed "there's no mass arrests of [marijuana] users," who instead "get a ticket." As Senior Editor Jacob Sullum retorted the next day at, "According to the FBI, police in the United States made about 750,000 marijuana arrests in 2012, the vast majority (87 percent) for simple possession.…From 1996 through 2012, there were more than 12 million marijuana arrests.…More than 11 million of the pot busts involved simple possession."

Journalists who should know better repeat such ignorance if it bolsters their case for prohibition. "No one gets prison for just smoking pot," tweeted Washington Times editorialist Emily Miller on January 9. That would be news to, among others, Chris Diaz, currently serving a three-year prison sentence in Texas for possessing half an ounce of medical marijuana.

Sillier still, on January 2 Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus coupled her admission of youthful weed enjoyment with this non sequitur: "The reason to single out marijuana is the simple fact of its current (semi-)illegality." Pot is "less addictive" than alcohol and tobacco, Marcus writes, and "an occasional joint" is "no worse than an occasional drink," but it needs to stay illegal because it's illegal.

The once prestigious editor Tina Brown topped that nonsense with this January 3 tweet: "Legal weed contributes to us being a fatter, dumber, sleepier nation even less able to compete with the Chinese."

As Sullum pointed out in a January 8 syndicated column, "Colorado's path-breaking legalization of the marijuana business has revealed the intellectual bankruptcy of people who think violence is an appropriate response to consumption of psychoactive substances they do not like.…They do not even seem to understand that a moral justification is needed for using force to suppress an activity that violates no one's rights."

This is good news for those of usnow a majority of Americans, according to several recent polls-who think marijuana prohibition should be repealed. Tina Brown, David Brooks, and Ruth Marcus, who were pretty lonely in their legalization laments, were greeted by hoots of derision. That response represents an interesting reversal.

For decades, all the way up to November 2010, prohibitionists could rely on dismissive giggling and hand waving any time the rest of us advocated legalizing drugs. And those current or former pot smokers in or near power who should have known better were often the ones leading the mockery. When California tried crossing over from medical marijuana to full legalization in 2010 through Proposition 19, the state's editorial boards almost universally panned the measure. Instead of fact-based persuasion, they offered "reefer madness" and "what were they smoking?" jokes. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned, tellingly and inaccurately, that legalization would make "California a laughingstock."

This is how prohibitionists and cowards alike avoided having an argument: by playing to the insecurity of political elites who were desperate to be taken seriously. Advocates for realigning marijuana laws toward reality and human decency were treated like Tommy Chong at a church picnic. Even the Democratic Party, whose members are more inclined than the general public to favor legalization, used such mockery to marginalize opponents of the war on drugs. When people asked President Barack Obama about pot legalization during his first term, he generally responded with a laugh or a dismissive joke.

Success in Colorado (and Washington state and Uruguay, both of which also legalized pot recently) will soon make such tactics untenable. There is a lesson here for anyone making political arguments: If you side with power and prevailing policy on a given issue, it will not suffice to point and laugh at those crazy enough to challenge the status quo. Where ideas atrophy, politics will eventually follow.

NEXT: Russia Enacts Ban on Foreign Same-Sex Couples Adopting Russian Children

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  1. This is one of the many reasons we need to start electing pill-poppers, toothless methbillies, and guys like Warty who inject human growth hormone directly into their scrotums.

  2. It’s good to see that the Somali pirates haven’t seized the Reason Cruise yet.

    Oh, wait, this isn’t a newly written article from atop Davey Jones’ Locker. This is from the March issue (which means it was written last July).

  3. David Brooks: “Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture?”

    That’s Brooks’ problem right there.

    I don’t care if people use that errant thinking to justify the drug war, bans on gay marriage, or whatever else, they’re all wrong.

    Our culture molds our laws. The drug war is a great example. You can use the law to keep throwing people in jail for possession and sales for decades, but if the culture doesn’t want that, then the law is powerless to change the culture.

    Same thing with gay marriage bans–just because the law refuses to recognize gay relationships, doesn’t mean gay people are going to stop being gay and getting together–or that people are going to stop accepting them. Cultural icons like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Boy George, et. al. are much more powerful than any law.

    Racial tolerance didn’t come to our culture because the laws changed; the laws changed because racial tolerance came to our culture.

    So, the question isn’t: How should we change the laws to get the kind of culture we want? The question is: How should we change the culture to get the kind of laws we want?

    The culture doesn’t do what the laws say; the laws are the culture’s jailhouse bitch. I presume this is why Reason focuses so much on culture stories–culture is the most effective means to change. There certainly isn’t anything libertarian about using laws to change culture–and it puts the cart before the horse.

    1. I agree with Ken! Sorry Ken.

      Though I would nuance it up a bit–laws surely affect incentives and feed culture to some degree.

      1. Meanwhile, Tony, progressivism is all about using the law to force individuals to make sacrifices for the “common good”–you’re disgracefully self-contradictory. If progressivism isn’t about using the laws to try to change culture, than what is?

        You agreeing with me (or anyone else) is worse than worthless. You should apologize for agreeing with me!

        You’ll just agree with anything that sounds like it might be in favor of gay rights–even if it contradicts everything you say you believe–but you’re exactly like the religious right in all the ways that matter.

        Up yours!

        1. Ummm, why are you attacking him for being right for once? Isn’t self-contradiction by occasionally advocating for something you agree with better than uniformly and always advocating for something wrong?

          1. Because he isn’t right, and he doesn’t agree with me!

            He’d say he agreed with anything that sounded like it was telling libertarians to accept gay marriage–and he probably still thinks libertarians are against gay marriage because they’re libertarians.

            If I’d argued that we need to suspend the Constitution and support a progressive dictator that will give full rights* to all gay people–no matter what–then he’d have agreed with that, too.

            *”Rights” is just a figure of speech for want of a better word. Tony doesn’t believe in rights. Tony says believing in rights is like believing in “magic”.

    2. Social engineers believe legislation is magic.

      1. It’s funny to me that the Tony sock understands that laws affect incentives when it comes to pot, but goes completely retarded when it comes to other things.

    3. Gay marriage bans”

      I wasn’t aware gay marriage was banned anywhere in the same sense pot is banned.

      1. more than a few states had referendums to that effect. Maybe ‘ban’ is not the right word but the outcome was to not make SSM legal.

        1. Notorious is right in a sense. None of the bans are like pot bans in that the gay couple won’t go to jail.

          But they’re still banned in places like Texas where they won’t even recognize one performed in another state.

          1. The marriages aren’t banned, they aren’t recognized by the state of Texas.

            If the Texas government decided to quit deciding and recognizing who is or is not married, for straight or gay or polygamous couples, just treated any written contracts governing those marriages like any other contract, would you then say that the government had banned straight marriages?

            1. That’s an interesting way to put it and ban may not be the best word to describe what they do.

        2. But I bet you can go to a Unitarian churanywjere in the US, celebrate an SSM “wedding,” and live together as husband and husband, or wife and wife , or transgender husband and three transgender sister wives and a goldfish, without getting arrested for it. You just won’t get a state certificate of recognition for your lifestyle, any more than the state hands out certificates of recognition for Most Colorful Drunk. So far as I know.

          1. The trans husband and three trans sister wives would actually do jail time, but only cause of polygamy laws.

            1. Fair enough.

            2. Don’t you mean polygamy ban?

            3. They would only do jail time if they signed the legal documents after the ceremony saying they had all wedded, and asked the government to recognize the wedding.

              The ceremony and vows, and then representing themselves as married, would not be illegal.

          2. and a huge part of the furor over SSM has been precisely over the state cert. And when you ask people why anyone of any orientation should need the state’s permission to marry, they look at you as though a second head has sprouted.

          3. any more than the state hands out certificates of recognition for Most Colorful Drunk. So far as I know.

            Sure they do. What do you think “public intoxication” tickets are?

        3. “Ban” is probably the wrong word, but “illegal” works in the sense that some marriages are legal in the sense of recognized by law and some are not and cannot be. Illegal doesn’t need to mean criminal necessarily.

          1. Yeah, it kind of should be restricted to criminal violations.

            Otherwise, everything that you don’t have official state permission to do is “illegal”, and the word is drained of its meaning.

            1. OK, “illegal” is the wrong word too. I guess I’ll stick to more cumbersome and descriptive terms.

      2. Yes, you can see all the persecution that fell upon poor souls like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Boy George, Rock Hudson, John Ritter, Heath Ledger, et. al.

        Some of whom were merely playing the part of homosexuals.

      3. “I wasn’t aware gay marriage was banned anywhere in the same sense pot is banned.”

        Thirty-one U.S. state constitutional amendments banning legal recognition of same-sex unions have been adopted. Of these, nine make only same-sex marriage unconstitutional; seventeen make both same-sex marriage and civil unions unconstitutional; two make same-sex marriage, civil unions, and other contracts unconstitutional.…..ns_by_type

        It’s not exactly like the drug war in that they’re not out there searching houses with a militarized police force looking for gay people acting like they’re married, but, yeah, there are tons of people out there trying to use the law to change culture.

        …and failing miserably.

    4. So, the question isn’t: How should we change the laws to get the kind of culture we want?

      We could start changing those laws by adopting and stating out loud the view that politicians advocating throwing people in cages for ingesting disfavored substances should have their remarks treated with roughly the horror and repugnance we would reserve for remarks advocating the reinstitution of slavery.

    5. Laws probably do mold the culture to some extent. Though I’d agree that the other direction is more common and powerful. The big problem I have with what Brooks said is that he seems to think that is a good thing. Laws shouldn’t be used for social engineering. They should be used to protect people from each other (or more accurately, to punish people who violate others’ rights).

      1. “Laws probably do mold the culture to some extent.”

        There are people who think you should support the law, no matter what the law says. I they are few on a percentage basis, but we can also look at this in terms of the relative influence they have on each other.

        The law bowing to culture, I see happen all the time; but when I look for it working the other way, I just see a string of failures.

        And don’t people often lose ground on whatever issue–when they resort to using the law to try to change culture?

        Religion was already a formidable force because it was a part of the culture. No doubt, as people got more comfortable with evolution, etc., the cultural importance of religion was going to diminish, but I think evangelicals have really hurt themselves by trying to use the law to do their work.

        But plenty of people would still like going to church at Christmas even if they didn’t feel like they were supporting government discrimination against everything that isn’t nailed down just for being there.

        There wasn’t anything in the Sermon on the Mount supporting the use of government to advance science denialism or homophobia, but listening to political evangelicals, you’d think that was all Jesus ever talked about. Evangelical Christianity didn’t grow by using the law; they grew by alleviating people’s guilt and giving them some social status at church and standing in their communities.

        That’s the way you influence the culture.

    6. That’s Brooks’ problem right there.

      Yep. The State is the prime mover. Rather than asking “What kind of laws does society want?”, he asks “What kind of society do our lawmakers want?”

      Authoritarian/totalitarian scum.

      Nothing outside the state, nothing against the state, everything for the state.

    7. Culture molds laws, but it’s true also that laws more or less profoundly influence culture. This is known as “the teaching fx of the law”. Hey, I didn’t make it that way, it’s just a fact: People when taking in sources of info to decide right & wrong include the law in that input. Probably they think, “Laws like this aren’t made lightly, so they must’ve had some good reason for it. I might not know the reason now, but I’m sure it’s there.”

      1. And as it turns out, sometimes there wasn’t a good reason for the law. Many of those drugs were made illegal because the prohibitionists were successful with their scare tactics of “minorities will get high on these drugs and rape our white women”.

        1. Frequently there was no good reason, but all that matters is whether people think there was. Sometimes there was a reason that is no longer applicable due to a change in conditions.

    8. In all seriousness, I think the origins of the concept of otherwise intelligent people using stupid explanations in support of the drug way descends from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. While the original intent was to convince kids to resist the use of the substance, it also encouraged taking a blind eye to any arguments for legalization or tolerance.

      1. That makes sense though. It was designed to appeal to the 8-18 year old minds (and advertising to minors often underestimates the intelligence of the audience), so of course it would convince the statists.

  4. it never seems to dawn on these people that if someone supports drug legalization, it does not mean the person intends to use any drugs. When you do not have the freedom to decide what things to put into your own body, you don’t really have self-ownership and if you don’t have that, explain just free your society really is.

  5. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly denied that such criminal penalties even exist.

    Or continue to peddle the canard that places like Holland and Switzerland are such hell-holes because these countries “legalized” drug use, completely ignoring the fact that a) neither Switzerland nor Holland legalized drug use, just “tolerate” it and b) the fact that another country, Portugal, completely decriminalized drug use 13 years ago and did not see a surge in drug use like O’Reilly and people of his ilk have been predicting. O’Reily has gone as far as denying the facts regarding Portugal’s policies and how they have not encouraged drug use, and how the biggest problem for the Portuguese is alcohol abuse, not drugs.

    1. Holland & Switzerland are hell holes? That’s the canard right there, no qualifiers needed! In fact those countries are frequently held up as models of goodness, and AFAIK they are pretty damn good.

  6. When people asked President Barack Obama about pot legalization during his first term, he generally responded with a laugh or a dismissive joke.

    With his sardonic laugh he was really saying “You pathetic, naive nincompoop! Do you really believe I would do anything to dismantle a very powerful and politically-lucrative apparatus just to save a few potheads from jail?”

    1. And then he smoked a blunt in Air Force One and said, “It’s good to be the King President.”

  7. Brooks continued: “Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage?”

    Well, as incredible as it sounds, Brooks is completely correct here: Laws DO profoundly mold the culture. The overwhelming number of laws and regulations turns a community of perfectly moral and polite individuals into a mob of liars, cheats and criminals, unwittingly or not.

  8. David Brooks published a piece that, after detailing his own youthful pot smoking,

    Cool, so david brooks cannot legally own a firearm. More for me.

    1. I’d love to see Brooks and Obama both voluntarily turn themselves in so they could feel the impact of their beliefs. Oh, never mind, Brooks would probably walk free, but Barrack might become a prison gangsta!

  9. Man, I love Welch’s political instincts but I just hate this column.

    What’s with all that stuff about “the resource curse”? If I wanted to read about comparative economic development…I’d read about comparitive economic development.

    Marijuana legalization is wrong for many, many reasons: more than enough fodder to fill a column without dragging in irrelevancies.

  10. It is always interesting when I say that I favor legalization of pot, indeed most drugs. The usual hysterical attack is that an assertion that “I just want to get high”. I always get pleasure out of pointing out that I do not now, nor have I ever used pot, tobacco, or any of the illegal drugs.

    I would just like to put the drug cartels out of business, eliminate the cash flow for gangs, and stop putting people in jail who at most, only harm themselves.

    1. What response do you get to that? Surprisingly, my similar arguments do pretty well. Right until the prohibitionists comes up with some other thing to disapprove of, like “well, yeah, but then there will be driving while high” as if there isn’t already and telling them that would still be illegal results in a “well, I don’t know, we don’t need everyone doing drugs.” And then they pay the liquor store clerk and go home.

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  12. Russia, and Venezuela remain poor, corrupt, and illiberal.

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