Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Pot President

Hendrik Hertzberg on the hypocrisy of the hip.

In a blog post at the New Yorker last week, Hendrik Hertzberg spotlighted a recent joke made by the President of the United States at the White House Correspondents dinner. In reference to the rapidly changing media landscape, Obama said: “You can’t keep up with it. I mean, I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around two A.M. (Laughter.) It’s true! (Laughter.)”

The days of expressing a cringing contrition for your “youthful experimentation,” or claiming that you didn’t inhale, or clearly over.

But of course, the president’s joke wasn’t really that funny. Hertzberg cites statistics from Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, suggesting that “from fifty to a hundred thousand Americans are behind bars for pot, and only pot, on any given night.” The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) disputes those figures, but the point is not so much whose numbers are closer to the truth, but rather the simple fact that while the president made his joke, too many people are locked up in federal and state prisons for an offense that a growing number of states are backing away from enforcing.

As Hertzberg put it, the subtext of the president’s pot joke was that it “allowed the tuxedoed, evening-gowned, middle-aged audience at the Washington Hilton to feel, for a precious moment, hip. The subtext was that smoking pot, whether a lot or a little, is just a normal part of growing up…. Nor has it done much to blight the lives of the other people in the Hilton ballroom, most of whom, like the rest of the media, political, and Hollywood elites, have smoked pot, too.”

Obama, they say, was a champ stoner in school. He was, writes David Maraniss in his biography of Obama, skilled at “interceptions”—sneaking an extra hit off the joint when it hadn’t gotten all the way around yet.  Obama, writes Hertzberg, really ought to feel “a smidgen of shame that the government he heads treats people who do exactly what he used to do, and now casually jokes about, as criminals.”

We haven’t heard much lately about the Boomer hypocrisy inherent in such roomfuls of high achievers who used to get high. (Some of them still do.) Jobs and reputations and bank loans are not endangered by these sly references and knowing winks. What hurts jobs and reputations is a stretch in federal prison—the unwilling route taken by many less fortunate Americans.

Hertzberg is wrong when he says that “marijuana-associated suffering enters the picture only when prohibition does.” Like most pro-legalization commentators, he does not mention addiction liability, or lasting cognitive effects on younger smokers.  But it is true that a disproportionate amount of suffering is caused by marijuana prohibition laws. The farthest corners of the debate are staked out, but decriminalization—the missing middle ground—still offers society a more balanced starting point than full-tilt legalization. Merriam-Webster says that to decriminalize is “to repeal a strict ban on, while keeping under some form of regulation.” State policy makers, although they don’t use the term very often, are pursuing what amounts to decriminalization. Nobody other than world-peace-through-weed zealots is arguing for a repeat of the track record with cigarettes (a drug in the process of being re-criminalized). And the regulation of alcohol does not offer a compelling model for marijuana’s future as a semi-legal drug. Happily, marijuana is not nearly as dangerous as alcohol or nicotine, so that helps.

It might surprise some readers to know that a majority of the Dutch aren’t interested in legalizing marijuana. They are concerned about keeping it out of the hands of minors. They’re not very happy with the trend towards higher and higher levels of THC. This is expressed in the fact that marijuana is, and likely will remain, illegal in The Netherlands. The narrow coffee shop exception is misleading in this regard. It was not designed to make marijuana more acceptable, but to deal creatively with the problem of street sales. You almost never see a drug deal going down on the streets of Amsterdam. That’s because a) It’s stupid, you can just waltz into a coffee shop if you’re over 21. b) Dealers have a hard time beating coffee shop prices. c) Dutch police come down heavily on street dealers.  Why? See a) above. The Dutch are no freer to wander their canal-lined streets with a joint in hand than Americans are free to wander Capitol Mall Boulevard with an open bottle of Jack.

Now that’s decriminalization. And an unfair comparison, of course, since the Dutch nation is so much smaller and more homogenous than the U.S. But lately, the talk has been about states, not the country at large. And at the state level, some of the Dutch lessons may apply.

What should our president do about all of this? Hertzberg has three proposals:

—Tell the Justice Department to “end the absurd classification of marijuana as a supremely dangerous Schedule I drug, like heroin.” Alcohol, let us recall, does not have a drug classification because it is not a scheduled substance at all. This American ambivalence is reflected by the names of the country’s premier drug research groups, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the Monty Pythonesque National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

—Promise to “avoid making life unnecessarily difficult” for the states that have made provisions for medical marijuana or legalization.

—Change the name of the Drug Czar’s Office of National Drug Control Policy to something like the “Office of National Harm Reduction Drug Policy.”

Adopting any or all of these changes would be a useful step toward a decriminalized future for marijuana. Here’s the essential point: We have to make a space for marijuana use in American culture. I mean above the ground, and unassociated with jail time. While still murky from a medical point of view, there is just no doubting that millions of Americans prefer pot to alcohol as a recreational drug. Given alcohol’s role in the American death toll, and the lack of any such grim trail of the dead in marijuana’s case, there’s no shame in that decision, from my point of view.

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Lars said...

The Dutch still have what is known as the "backdoor problem", namely that the coffee shops must obtain their goods from illegal sources. Any proposal of decrim rather than legalization in other countries will have to present a solution to this problem, IMHO. This point is actually being used by some prohibitionists to badmouth the Dutch model.

Dirk Hanson said...

You're right about that. The Dutch haven't closed the loop--they just pretend that it turns up at the coffee shops by magic. And they do bust big grow operations. Fair to see it as the Achille's Heel of the Dutch Model.

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