Racially Motivated Policy

On the Dangers of Racially Motivated Public Policy

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari writes about Harry Anslinger, the Nation’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was a staunch anti-drug crusader, but he also held deeply racist views which came to influence his opinions about drug use and national policy related to specific drugs. In many ways, it was Anslinger’s racist views that created a national prohibition on marijuana, and lead to years of laws prosecuting marijuana use and racially disparate arrests.

 

Early in his career, Anslinger wasn’t very interested in marijuana. He was more focused on heroin and cocaine, but Hari explains that heroin and cocaine use was not wide spread enough in the American population to justify the size of his agency. As newspapers began to report on crime related to black and brown people in the United States who had used marijuana, Anslinger seized on the opportunity to demonize the drug. Hari writes, “almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most-feared groups in the United States – Mexican immigrants and African Americans – were taking the drug much more than white people.”

 

Despite evidence from researchers and physicians indicating that marijuana use generally did not lead to the atrocities that Anslinger began to claim, he pushed forward with harsh drug policies related to marijuana, policies that he knew would have a racially disparate impact. At a certain point, in the picture Hari presents, it appears that Ansligner began to believe what he wanted and see what he wanted in the world around him. After he proved how dangerous the mafia was in the United States, contrary to the view of many experts, he began to believe his own rhetoric about racial inferiority and marijuana dangers. Hari writes, “Anslinger began to believe all his hunches would turn out like this. He only had to defy the experts and keep using his instinct until, finally, he would be shown to be more right than anyone could have predicted.”

 

Anslinger was clearly wrong, and his stance and attitude are easy to denounce today. But what we should learn from his story is just how dangerous public policy can be when it is motivated by racist values and hatred. For many of us today, we believe our values are high minded, and we believe that the policies we favor can have no downside. Nevertheless, we can still learn from the example of Anslinger and the resulting racial problems his policies created in the Untied States.

 

We need to be honest with ourselves and those around us about the values that drive our policy decisions. We should be honest about the potential failure points of the policy we support, and we should acknowledge that there are potential negatives of what we do. This requires that we recognize the message we are trying to push, and avoid simply looking for examples in the world that confirm what we already want to believe. If our values are indeed high-minded, and if we can be open and honest about our motivations, then our policies should be supported by a larger audience. Failing to be honest and open can put us in a place where we defend bad policy, and push for policies that explicitly hurt others, without us acknowledging the downsides. It is also critical that we acknowledge the role that race plays (or has the potential to play) in the policies and attitudes we support. The same reflection and honesty regarding our policies must apply to the racial outcomes of the policies we favor, and we have to push back against policies with disparate negative outcomes for minority groups.
The Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

The Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

“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.
Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

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 (here and here). 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.
The Surprising History of Marijuana in America

The Surprising History of Marijuana in America

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.
Black markets and Marijuana

A Thought About Black Markets

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.