Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Drug Doublethink

Julian Sanchez has dredged up an ancient campaign scandal that dates all the way back to two months ago, to make a general point about our national attitude towards the drug war:
I just found myself thinking about the case of Bill Shaheen, Hillary Clinton's former New Hampshire campaign co-chair, who had to resign after suggesting that Barack Obama—who has admitted using marijuana and cocaine as a young man—would be pressed in a general election to answer questions about whether he had ever been a cocaine dealer. Now, this was rightly regarded as incredibly slimy, and perhaps also as an attempt to invoke ugly racial stereotypes. But then it seems as though, at some point, some kind of consensus was reached that bringing up the candidates drug history at all was some kind of sleazy, dirty campaigning. Recall this exchange from Hardball: [snip]
Now, this is all right with me: I think the laws prohibiting cocaine and marijuana are foolish and wrong, that there's nothing especially shameful about having used them, and that so long as we're talking about use that ended long ago, it's a private matter that shouldn't be used as campaign fodder. What I find surprising—or at any rate, inconsistent—is that so many folks in mainstream politics and media seem to be on board with that third point given how few are prepared to publicly endorse the first two. Because our government does, in fact, send people to prison for using cocaine and marijuana. And it seems a little odd to get the vapors at the prospect of anyone criticizing a candidate for behavior that they concede, at least tacitly, it would have been perfectly legitimate to lock him away for.
Megan McArdle adds:
As an avid drug legalizer myself, I should like to see someone ask this question:
Senator, you used cocaine and marijuana. Would it have been just and right for you to have been sentenced to multi-year prison terms under today's drug laws?
Now, this would certainly be a great gotcha question for Obama, from which he would deftly segue into whatever his painfully moderate "treatment" ideas are. But there's more to it than this; Julian's original observation, that for some reason the media finds it taboo to attack a candidate's drug use history, and also finds it taboo to attack the drug laws that would have landed that candidate in jail and aborted his political career had he been pulled over by the wrong cop at the wrong time, is a window into our entire national attitude towards drugs.

The reason this bit of doublethink persists is that People Using Drugs is perceived by a large chunk of Americans not as a manifestation of evil, but merely as a Problem. Individual users of drugs are portrayed not as villains, but as fools; not evil, merely doing something stupid that can/will ruin their lives. Thus Obama doesn't deserve scorn for using drugs in the past, because it wasn't an act of malice or neglect for others; merely a personal mistake that he no longer commits. People don't support drug laws because they want to round up all the potheads and throw them in jail, thus ruining their lives far more than the drugs themselves ever could; they support them because they want there to be a deterrent that prevents those poor fools from using drugs in the first place.

Drug dealers, on the other hand, are not treated so charitably. In reality, drugs sell themselves. Any libertarian will tell you that if you arrest one drug dealer, his competition just moves in to take his place. But in the media narrative, drug dealers are villains: the true criminals, who smuggle this illegal stuff across the border, convince people to use drugs for the first time, etc. Plus, they're only in it to make money.

This is why Obama's admitted drug use became a much bigger scandal when people speculated about him sellingdrugs, even though that speculation was groundless. And it's also why Americans as a whole, when determining what additional government solution to deploy against the persistent problem of drug use, find it much more palatable to go after drug dealers, even though doing so is ineffective.

One wonders whether the tail is wagging the dog here. The commerce clause enables the federal government to go after drug "trafficking", whereas possession laws tend to be passed at the state level, so the federal government has an incentive to encourage the national media to villainize the people it is actually able to arrest.

But largely, the national attitude is that more people using drugs would be bad and less people using drugs would be good and thus the government should adopt a policy that reduces drug use. Whatever policy the government chooses to adopt rapidly falls victim to the Something fallacy (something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done). And like any other policy, attackers of the means are painted as attackers of the ends. Just as conservatives interpret criticism of the Iraq war as a desire for America to Lose the War On Terror, just as liberals intepret criticism of social programs as hatred of poor people, criticism of drug policy is lambasted as a desire to increase drug use.

People have begun to recognize the profound immorality of jailing someone who merely makes a poor decision, but they fear that legalizing drugs would cause more people to use them, and are afraid of being seen as a "drug apologist". So it's extremely easy to latch on to a third party, the villainous drug dealer, and direct their ire in that direction. Meanwhile, the question of whether drug possession laws are themselves justified is sheepishly ignored.

I propose a pair of followup questions for Obama:
Would it have been just and right for whoever you bought drugs from to serve a long prison term for selling them to you? Would you have stopped using illegal drugs if that had occurred?

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