Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Not All The Same

Perhaps it was the opening of the marijuana dispensaries in Colorado, the second state to legalize the use of the drug for personal use by adults. Or maybe it was the column by David Brooks, a response to the occasion in Colorado, in which he tried to evoke memories of 'Nixon going to China,' in which we're to accept what the New York Times columnist wrote because (one supposes) "hey, I'm no stick in the mud, I've been there myself."  He wrote

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up weed. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

Brooks' posse stopped using marijuana "because we each had a few embarrassing incidents.. because one member of our clique became a full-on stoner (and because) most of us developed higher pleasures."

And, yes, he did write "stoner," a fine word if you're 60 years old and want to enhance your credibility by pretending you're 20.  Brooks argued

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users....

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

If Brooks was a little smug (he is, after all, a columnist at the "paper of record," the most well-respected newspaper anywhere on the planet), he at least avoided two of the most disingenuous claims about marijuana.

Not so with one of the guests on Up with Steve Kornacki. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director at the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, commented

Look, as a treatment professional, we never advocated incarceration as the solution to what we now know is a brain disease. And clearly we have a long way to go. When it comes to marijuana, it is a tricky question, because there aren`t good service structures in place to educate people about marijuana use. So it`s almost like if you`re an Oxycontin or Vicodin user, you go to treatment and other than that, we leave you alone. We need something in the middle that says to the chronic marijuana user, who is 17, who is smoking every day, that person won`t necessarily qualify for treatment, but that person needs something. Without intervention, they`re going to run into problems.

I would say, you know, we should be reinvesting into the treatment system, take all the money we`re wasting on incarcerating young black men, and put that into the treatment system. That`s one of the things we all agree upon, to say look, the war on drugs has been a failure. The law enforcement response to a public health problem is inappropriate and wasteful. How at this point though do we begin to reprogram some of those dollars into a system that provides support and care for young people who are struggling.

A few moments earlier, Reynolds had claimed "Look, you know, I`m probably the sole guy here set out to defend the war on drugs. That`s crazy.  We all know that hasn't worked. But what I'd say is..." We know we're in trouble when a guy comes on and says "I'm here to defend the war on drugs, it hasn't worked, and I'm not going to say it has to stop."

And we don't know the war on drugs hasn't worked.   What we do know is that cocaine use in the U.S., as depicted in the graph (from alltreatment.com) below, has declined dramatically since 1988 (as has, not completely coincidentally, street crime).    There are probably several factors (among them education, aging of the population, removal of lead) contributing to the sharp drop and we cannot be confident that the war on drugs has played a role. But we clearly and certainly cannot be confident that it has not.

Reynolds is pleased that he can agree with the other panelists, who are critics of the drug war, by criticizing "the law enforcement response to a public health problem" and incarceration of "young black men."   But while opposing incarceration, he wants to keep marijuana legal- and, apparently, respond to its use by treatment.

But as Reynolds- who undoubtedly works with the criminal justice system- understands, leaving marijuana illegal does not eliminate incarceration.   Some people undoubtedly will resist treatment and/or the probation term which generally comes as an alternative to imprisonment... and then, what?  The user either is incarcerated or the behavior-which Reynolds believes should remain illegal-  is condoned, arguably encouraged.

Presumably, there are other treatment professionals, such as the misguided drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who oppose both the drug war and legalization of marijuana. Of course they do; continuation of "the drug war" means incarceration of more users, whose opportunity for treatment is foreclosed or who accept treatment only under the threat of increased jail time.  That discomforts individuals such as Reynolds and Kerlikowske, who are unable to make a distinction between marijuana and far more deadly controlled dangerous substances.

As one would expect, Reynolds was discomfited by the comparison of marijuana and alcohol, the latter regulated in Washington State and Colorado similarly to the former."   Justifiably citing "health care costs, lost productivity, and treatment costs," he does not want to use alcoholism "as a model."

Leave it, though, to another of the guests, the brilliant John Fugelsang (a regular host on the late Current TV, sold to Al Jazeera America),  to nail David Brooks, who prefers societies in which "government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned."  "I think," Fugelsang quipped, "David would benefit from a quick junket and a stop- a junket to the Netherlands and a stop at a coffee shop and a Van Gogh museum, and see what he says afterwards."

And (with a reference to arrests of blacks and whites for marijuana possession) he nails President Obama:

no one is ever proud of anything they did on marijuana -- I think when McCartney hears "Sergeant Pepper," he feels some pride, quite frankly. But I think David Brooks doesn`t offer any other solutions. One of the greatest critiques of the Obama administration in the first term was that the single greatest broken promise was that they would not interfere with the California dispensaries, and of course we know the DOJ did exactly the opposite. So considering we haven't heard this president yet use the words, "prison industrial complex," I think the graphs like the one you just showed shows the inherent morality in not locking people up.

Social progress is, as Fugelsang inferred, stymied by a failure to admit.  Gay people now admit- or sometimes proudly proclaim- their sexual preference.  Women who have received abortions cannot, without fear of condemnation, reveal they have undergone the procedure.  And despite the lightheartedness sometimes surrounding admission of marijuana use, no one admits he or she is proud of anything done while using marijuana or that he/she did not suffer because of its use.

The folks condemning both marijuana and the drug war know that people will still be locked up if we ban the first and end the latter. The major difference would be what they get locked up for- a relatively harmless drug or far more serious drugs.

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