Thursday, March 10, 2011

marijuana legalization is a human rights issue

Awhile back, Mother Jones, which is a publication I generally respect a lot, generated an artificial controversy for itself by announcing the difficulty its editors had in choosing between two covers, one about the crisis in Haiti and the other about the evolution of the marijuana industry. I find the whole thing kind of untoward; they took an internal editorial decision, compromised on the choice, and then discussed it in a way that seemed designed to win plaudits for their seriousness. The problem in particular is that it's just an entirely false dilemma, and an invented one. It's like saying "you can stop rape or you can stop disease-- CHOOSE!" If you look at the comments to that piece, many readers took it entirely in that spirit.

But beyond the mere curio of this media moment, there's an important issue lurking here. Look again to the comments, and you'll see many people insisting that Haiti should definitely trump the marijuana industry because (implicitly or explicitly) Haiti is an issue of superior moral seriousness to the issue of legalizing marijuana. Precisely because I think the choice is false, I don't want to try and adjudicate that here. (The issue of what is more appropriate or marketable for a major magazine lies outside of both my expertise and my interest.) But I am disturbed by the overwhelming impression that the commenters seem to have that the legalization of marijuana is some silly counter cultural issue. This is especially troubling because I imagine most of the commenters on Mother Jones are the kind of people who favor marijuana legalization.

The legalization of marijuana, it's true, is a libertarian issue. The fundamental principle is the sheer absurdity of the government telling me what I can and can't put into my own body, or trying to adjudicate what is best for my health or personal well-being. I am arguing, yes, for the right to get high. But thanks to the incredible vagaries of the drug war, legalization of marijuana is so much more. It is absolutely, undoubtedly an issue of human rights. Despite the common canard that marijuana is "basically" decriminalized, we arrest people for marijuana offenses at an absurd rate-- and that rate has consistently grown since the early '90s:
chart courtesy of The Bulletin of Cannabis Reform

In 2007 there were over 850,000 marijuana arrests (PDF). The United States has only 5% of the worlds population but imprisons 25% of its prisoners. The federal government spent over $15 billion on the drug war in 2010, or a rate of $500 a second. Our country is 66% non-Hispanic white people but 70% of our prisoners are non-white. The justice system is overwhelmingly unfriendly to the poor. And on and on.

I don't understand how it can possibly remain the case that these facts are out there and yet marijuana legalization is somehow seen as a less than serious issue. This is a social justice issue. This is a racial justice issue. This is a deficit reduction issue. This is an issue of elementary personal freedoms. But we can't fix things as long as people who are ostensibly in favor of decriminalization continue to say so with a smirk, or relegate the issue to the margins, or treat it as a distraction or joke. It's time to get serious about a serious and deeply troubling issue.

48 comments:

George said...

Couldn't agree with more on this. Thanks again for your eloquence. That "smirking" was echoed. if not encouraged, by the President, at least a while back.

davidf said...

I think one element of people's scepticism about legalisation comes from precisely the sort of power dynamic you're normally quite attuned to.

There *is* a social/racial justice and personal liberty issue around the arrest and imprisonment statistics you refer to. But if the criminal justice system wasn't criminalising minorities and the poor by applying marijuana law, I think it would likely find another conduit.

'Three strikes and you're out' laws are one good example that has contributed to the rising prison population; loitering, vagrancy, and various auto violations have also been used over the years for the same purpose of victimising particular groups.

I think we'd probably see a marked *short-term* decline in some of those figures if marijuana were legalised, because one powerful tool for victimising people would be removed.

But I think the problem is more structural and deeper than just marijuana laws, and eventually police and law-and-order judges and politicians would work out new ways to criminalise the other.

LEAP said...

Find out why more and more cops, judges, and prosecutors who have fought on the front lines of the "war on drugs" are standing up and saying we need to legalize and regulate all drugs to help solve our economic, crime, and public health problems: http://www.facebook.com/CopsSayLegalizeDrugs

Susan Cogan said...

yes! absolutely yes. The drug "war" MUST end!

Jared said...

I completely agree with this sentiment. When I talk about cannabis legalization, I have to make sure that people realize I'm talking about a civil right issue, not a "free to smoke weed" issue.

Studies show that in the younger demographics, black and white people consume marijuana at roughly the same rate, but...

- Black males are more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes.

- Among blacks and whites who are arrested for non-violent marijuana offenses, blacks are significantly more likely to be convicted.

- Among blacks and whites who are convicted of similar crimes, blacks are more likely to go to prison, whereas whites are more likely to get fines/parole/alternative sentencing.

At every step, the system is rigged against racial "minorities" and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The current drug policies are the closest thing this country has to Jim Crow laws, and every day that it continues like this is a sad day in American history.

Anonymous said...

You are always kicking some ass, Freddie!

John S. Wilkins said...

Nearly every western nation apart from the US has decriminalised marijuana use. In Portugal, they decriminalised all drugs, including heroin. Trafficking is still a crime punishable by imprisonment, but use is treated as a medical issue, and medical grade heroin is prescribed.

Portugese society has not come to a standstill. They spend far less on prisons, and addictions cost less. Crime is down. People who have addictions are working. I spent a week in Lisbon a year or so back and I felt safer there than in my home town Sydney.

Prohibition never works. America should understand that. But it sets up massive governmental agencies that rely on it to justify their existence. It costs more than regulation and amelioration in every way.

burntbeans said...

Instead of de-funding the NEA, get a congressperson to support de-funding the DEA!

yeah, that'll happen...

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