In his book Chasing The Scream, Johann Hari writes about common misconceptions related to drug violence in the United States. Misconceptions influence drug policy, shape the way people think about drug crimes and drug users, and prevent us from taking real action to help reduce the conflicts and negative externalities related to the American war on drugs.
Hari writes, “When we hear about drug-related violence, we picture somebody getting high and killing people. We think the violence is the product of the drugs. But in fact, it turns out this is only a tiny sliver of the violence. The vast majority is … to establish, protect, and defend drug territory in an illegal market, and to build a name for being consistently terrifying so nobody tries to take your property or turf.”
What Hari suggests throughout the book is that many of the negative things we relate to drug use is more associated with prohibition against drugs. Making drugs illegal and trying to stamp out any drug use in an all-out war creates negative externalities that justify violence and prohibition. The war on drugs creates a positive feedback loop, making drug use and drug trafficking more dangerous, building support for harsher treatment and destruction of drug users and sellers.
When we make something illegal, we create a black market. On the black market, as I wrote about
from Brookings Scholar John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History
, suppliers don’t have to meet safety and quality standards that would exist in a regulated legal market. This is where the dangers of drug use arise and where drug related violence comes into the picture. Many of the people using drugs directly are non-violent, and don’t want to cause harm to others when using drugs. They harm others when they need to obtain drugs illegally, on a costly and dangerous black market. The sellers create relationships and build territory, and use their own force to control their territory, since relying on police protection and legal backing to defend property and product is not an option in a black market.
I don’t know what the world would look like without a war on drugs and with a legal market for obtaining drugs. I don’t know what new externaliteis would arise and how we would face them. But I do think that Hari is correct and that we should acknowledge that much of the drug related violence and crime, and much of the safety concerns related to drug use, stem from the very prohibition and war that we approve of to stamp out drug use. The current approach seems incapable of eradicating drugs, but it does seem to spur substantial drug related violence and safety issues.
“Tremendous sums of money are spent on enforcing federal and state marijuana laws every year,” writes John Hudak in his book Marijuana: A Short History, “A 2010 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron puts that total cost at around $14 billion annually for federal and local law enforcement, judicial, and correctional costs.”
A common refrain in the public policy world is that government budgeting reveals a society’s priority. In the United States, our system of incarcerating individuals and enforcing laws that often disproportionately impact individuals from racial minorities does not reveal something that many American’s would be proud of. The amount of money that our country, our state governments, and our local municipal governments spend on law enforcement and incarceration is enormous, and the amount we spend on actual rehabilitative programs and preventive efforts is comparatively small. We seem to be a nation that is all about punishing bad guys, but not as concerned about preventing crime and helping people avoid lives that lead toward illegal behavior in the first place.
There is still a lot we don’t know about how marijuana use will impact the human body, and we don’t know the full costs of legalizing marijuana, but I think it is fair to question whether $14 billion dollars is worth the cost of prohibition. Keeping people in jail for low level drug charges doesn’t seem to be worth the cost to many people, and that is why some libertarian and conservative groups (such as the Koch brothers), have begun to support marijuana legalization. The question is whether our priority really should be policing and arresting people for using marijuana, or whether we should be investing that money toward other purposes.
Police and law enforcement resources could be redirected toward other crimes. Reduced judicial and correctional costs might allow for smaller local budgets, meaning lower taxes for citizens. And in states like Nevada, legalized marijuana has meant tens of millions in new revenue specifically for schools and rainy day funds. Ultimately, where our government decides to put money reveals what our preferences are as citizens and voters, and for a long time our preference has been to pay to remove people we don’t like from society, even if the cost is huge and overwhelms our state and local budgets.
In my last post I wrote about nationwide trends toward Marijuana legalization. I live in Nevada, and marijuana has been legal for the last few years. My last post linked to a biennial financial report prepared by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Fiscal Division. The money states can make is a big driver of the legalization trend, but it is certainly not the only. A another serious factor, and one I would like to see us talk about more, is fairness and equality under the law – meaning the opportunity to eliminate racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
John Hudak, in his book Marijuana: A short History, writes, “According to a comprehensive 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Black arrest rates for marijuana possession far outpace white arrest rates, even though marijuana use is about the same between both groups.” Whether intentional or not, this highlights a reality that we are not enforcing laws equally depending on who is committing the crime. Hudak continues, “Despite being 15 percent of the national population, blacks accounted for 58 percent of marijuana arrests in 2010.”
I wrote about this after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow
). The reality is that black people are more likely to be in positions where we can enforce certain drug policies, and even thought they are not any more likely to commit violent crimes or use marijuana than white people, they are perceived as more dangerous and are more likely to be arrested for low level drug possession. This creates inequalities and barriers that black people in America have a hard time overcoming, and which are largely invisible for white people.
Civil liberty groups, people who have read Michelle Alexander’s book, and even conservative/libertarian activists who want to reduce state spending have begun to advocate for marijuana legalization to begin to reduce these disparities and save state fiscal resources. The push toward legalization is partly an effort to eliminate arrests that are unfair and are now perceived as unnecessary. Many people hope that reducing disparities in drug sentencing laws and legalizing marijuana will help begin to reduce racial inequality in our country. It is a rare issue where we can stop spending so much money on arresting people, so some Republicans are on board with the proposal, while also helping reduce racial disparities, a key driver for many Democrats.
In some ways it is impossible to look at history without applying our own lenses and filters from the modern day world. We assume that aspects of our lives today are shared with all humans from the past, but often, and in many surprising instances, this is not the case. John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History has some great examples with the history of marijuana.
Before having read Hudak’s book, I hadn’t given much thought to the long history of marijuana in the United States. I had imagined that native peoples in the Americas had probably used the plant for recreational or spiritual purposes, but I never had any evidence to support that idea and it was probably just a poor stereotype I developed from pop culture. I had never suspected that the plant had a long history in the American Colonies and in the history of our nation. It was always easy for me to assume that marijuana use has always been illegal or at least frowned upon.
Hudak’s book shows how much our views toward marijuana have changed throughout our nation’s history. In the last 10 years American’s have become much less hostile to marijuana, and I’m writing this from Nevada, where we legalized marijuana a few years back and have had received millions in taxes from sale and cultivation
(see page 56). This follows decades of treating marijuana as a dangerous drug used by criminals that lead to even worse drug use. But even further back in American history, marijuana was viewed much more favorably, and in some instances, was even a required crop for farmers to grow.
“Hemp was a critical crop in the colonies, and some of America’s most revered historical figures … have had an outsized impact on production,” writes Hudak. “In Jamestown, Virginia, growing cannabis for hemp-based products was mandated by the British Crown. … George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were well-known, successful hemp farmers … In Massachusetts, John Adams, too, grew hemp, writing (under a pseudonym) of hemp’s mind-altering capabilities.”
I would never have suspected that our founding fathers would have grown marijuana to produce hemp products and for recreational use as indicated by President Adams. Drug policy, as I wrote about in my last post, is not as objective and rational as we would think. How we treat drug use and what we consider acceptable and not acceptable changes with public opinion, propaganda efforts, and cultural attitudes. History shows us that what we consider normal today has not been the norm forever, and viewing history though our lenses and filters of the modern world can leave us very surprised when history doesn’t want to accord to our standards and expectations.
One of my big takeaways as a public policy student at the University of Nevada was that public policy is not detached from our values. We like to think that elected officials and public administration officials are able to look at the world rationally and make judgments based purely on empirical facts, but this is not the case. Our values seep into all of our judgments and influence what we find as good or bad evidence. A good example of this at the federal level is Richard Nixon’s drug policy.
Drug policy seems like an area where empiricism and facts would rule. It feels like an area where we could identify the harms of drug use, estimate the social costs of drugs, and set policy accordingly, but American history shows that is not the case. John Hudak examines this history in his book Marijuana: A Short History, and shows how Richard Nixon used propaganda related to drug use to fuel his electoral campaign.
Hudak writes, “In fact, crafting public opinion on drug use and crime was central to Richard Nixon’s electoral strategy: he recognized that if he could stoke fears among the public about the drug problem and then position himself as the individual most capable of fighting the war against drugs, he would benefit electorally. In many ways he was right.”
Even though we can track drug related crimes, we can record drug overdose deaths, and we can estimate the social cost of drug use, our policies are driven more by fear and the desire to others into villains than by facts. Richard Nixon was clearly a master of understanding and manipulating public opinion, and used this reality to his advantage. Rather than encouraging public opinion to reflect the realities of drug uses, Nixon tied drug use with racial anxiety and resentment in a way that helped his own electoral fortunes. Public policy, Nixon demonstrated, was not swayed primarily by facts and logic, but by fear and irrationality.
For those of us who care about an issue and want to see responsible policy regarding the issues we care about, we must understand that empiricism and facts is not the only thing behind public policy. Public policy reflects emotion, power, and influence, and is subject to framing by people whose motives are not always pure. Advocating and supporting good public policy requires that we get beyond facts and figures, and understand the frames being applied to the policy in question.
A line from John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History
is worth thinking about if we are someone who frequently thinks about public policy. Hudak writes, “The black market just has to deliver marijuana; the legal market must meet consumer demand.”
Hudak’s line comes from an early paragraph in his book where he discusses historical trends in the strength of marijuana overtime. Marijuana strength is often measured by the amount of THC in the final product to be consumed. Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, a researcher with the University of Mississippi, has been analyzing the THC content in seized marijuana since the 1970’s and has found that THC content has increased overtime from about 3% to 7-8%. However, marijuana that can now be purchased in dispensaries in states that have legalized marijuana often has a much higher THC content, closer to 20% or more.
My interest is not so much in the marijuana itself, although the plant and product is interesting (Note: I have asthma and can’t smoke and I have never tried any edible forms of marijuana). What is really interesting is the degree to which the black market under-served those who wanted to purchase marijuana from 1970 to today. Marijuana that could be purchased from a drug dealer or a friend was not as potent as people would have liked. If people were intent to buy marijuana, their only option was a product that we would consider inferior to the options available in states that have legalized marijuana today, a product that many likely wouldn’t chose if they’d been able to chose an alternative product.
The point I want to highlight is not that people were purchasing weak marijuana from the 1970’s until 2019 when Hudak’s book was published. Instead, the point I am trying to make is that the black market delivers sub-par products to people who use them. In the case I am writing about, illegal supplies of marijuana were simply less potent, not something that non-marijuana users are likely to care much about. However, if we think about other black markets, we should be more concerned about the products that people purchase illegally. Other black market products, that people cannot obtain legally and that cannot be regulated by a true market mechanism, likely come with more dangers than just being weak. Other illicit drugs can be even more dangerous and harmful when purchased on the black market. Health products, purchased on the black market where they might be cheaper than licensed and regulated products obtained legally, could also pose serious risks of harm.
This creates an argument for reasonably regulated markets, even of things we find deviant and would rather people be unable to purchase. We want some type of government oversight to ensure that products and services are safe, effective, and authentic, but we should be concerned about government regulation that drives a product or service into a black market. The market itself will find a way to deliver the service or product, but it may do so in a dangerous and illicit manner. Government and regulation can be forces for good and bad within this dynamic. What is important is that we think critically of how regulation relates to markets, and consider the impact on people’s lives, including the lives of those who will still pursue a product or service once it is forced to a black market.