Inequality and the War on Drugs


Conor Friedersdorf has a bone to pick with David Frum, one of his fellow voices of relative sanity among conservatives, on the question of the war on drugs and its clearly disproportionate effect on the poor and minorities. Frum is confused by those who are concerned about inequality but want drugs legalized:

The good news is that many—most—young people will experiment with marijuana, quit, and suffer no long-lasting ill effects. The bad news is that more young people are experimenting with marijuana, raising the absolute numbers of those who will become habitual users.

The young people most likely to become habitual users are those who already face declining opportunities. Over the past generation, American society has closed route after route into the middle class. Wages are stagnant, upward mobility has slowed, job security has deterior­ated, higher education has become more expensive, and two-parent families have dwindled. Meanwhile, we have opened more and more roads to self-harm. Must we now open another?

It’s baffling to me that people who profess anxiety about the trend to social inequality will so often endorse drug legalization. A world of legal drugs will be a world in which the fates of the top one third of Americans and the lower two thirds will diverge even more than they already do. A world of weaker families, absent parents, and shriveling job opportunities is a world in which more Americans will seek a cheap and easy escape from their depressing reality. Legalized marijuana, like legal tobacco, will become a diversion for those who feel they have the least to lose.

Nonsense, counters Friedersdorf, pointing out the obvious enforcement disparities:

Now let’s ponder whether marijuana prohibition creates even more dramatic harm, and whether the burden falls most heavily on relatively poor people. If you’re baffled that someone would want to reduce inequalityand legalize marijuana, this little exercise is guaranteed to edify.

  • Even controlling for different levels of use, poor people are arrested more frequently than their upper middle class equivalents, are more likely to be found guilty, and are sentenced to harsher penalties.
  • The violence associated with a black market in marijuana causes the vast majority of its harm in poorer neighborhoods and poorer countries.
  • The economic incentive to become a drug dealer acts far more powerfully on poor kids than richer kids.
  • Incarceration associated with marijuana does far more damage to poor families than to rich families, and affects the supply of marriageable men far more in poorer than richer neighborhoods.

Friedersdorf argues that the effects of the war on drugs “fall most heavily on the poor.” That’s a massive understatement. The war on drugs is focused almost exclusively on inner cities, subjecting more than a million people every year to arrest and other engagement with our profoundly unjust criminal justice system. Every person arrested for marijuana possession — 750,000 people a year — is a life made infinitely more difficult than it is by the mere use of marijuana. The overwhelming majority of pot users remain productive citizens, but arrest them and convict them for doing that almost entirely unharmful activity and you have destroyed families and lives by the millions.

Would President Obama’s life had been better if he’d been caught smoking pot, arrested and jailed? He would have had a criminal record, making it far less likely that he would get a good education or a job. He’d be locked out of federal grants and student loans in most states. His life would have been dramatically altered, all for the worse. His youthful pot use, on the other hand, did not harm him a bit. Only enforcement of drug prohibition could have destroyed his life and career.

Comments

  1. scienceavenger says

    Frum sadly falls into the same trap conservatives have fallen into for decades: not understanding that the biggest dangers of drug use are the legal repurcussions and the black-market criminal element, not the pharmocological effects of the drugs themselves. In the case of marijuana, this is especially true, where the physical effects beyond the momentary loss of sobriety (as with alcohol) are practically nonexistent for all but the most extreme usage (unlike alcohol).

  2. says

    The fact that a conservative is expressing even a passing concern about inequality among poor and urban populations is a major departure from the past 40 years.

  3. bobaho says

    Only enforcement of drug prohibition could have destroyed his life and career.

    And Barry no longer lives in Stop and Frisk NYC. Interesting thing that Stop and Frisk, if you are carrying marijuana and it is not in plain sight; e.g., in your pocket, then any discovery of it is an infraction. However, if a police officer stops you, asks you to empty your pockets, (Stop and Frisk starts with that request / command) and you comply, and thereby expose your marijuana to plain sight; that is a misdemeanor. When you write that the laws nearly exclusively target and punish inner city residents, here’s one the President should at least be able to provide input, if not decide or lead. I would be satisfied if he just answered the questions: Do you think that the next generation’s version of you is going to be denied the same opportunity because of how drug laws affect inner city residents? How does the federal government contribute to this problem, how does it solve it?

  4. slc1 says

    The case of the president, who, it is my information, has also acknowledged snorting the nose candy a time or two, should be compared with his predecessor, who also was an occasional pot smoker and snorter of nose candy. How differently they would have been treated if they had both been caught with the stuff.

  5. fleetfootphilo says

    This attitude held by many in the general public – the paternalistic notion that THEIR opinion on behavior is good enough to hold onto decades of shitty racist and classist laws – infuriates me to no end. It is almost comical the way they frame inequality as though they are somehow doing us a favor.
    They are not doing us a favor.

  6. says

    He seems to be implying that long-term use of marijuana is bad. How does it compare to other socially sanctioned drugs like alcohol? Which has a more severe impact on the chronic user? [CITATION NEEDED] all over the place, in other words – he seems to be engaged in moral reasoning backwards; he’s already decided what’s right and wrong and is therefore arguing what’s right and wrong. Because.

  7. says

    the paternalistic notion that THEIR opinion on behavior is good enough to hold onto decades of shitty racist and classist laws – infuriates me to no end. It is almost comical the way they frame inequality as though they are somehow doing us a favor.

    We can always hope they kill themselves with alcohol, cigars, and too much red meat.

  8. says

    slc1 asks an interesting question:
    The case of the president, who, it is my information, has also acknowledged snorting the nose candy a time or two, should be compared with his predecessor, who also was an occasional pot smoker and snorter of nose candy. How differently they would have been treated if they had both been caught with the stuff.

    It probably depends a great deal on when in their careers they hypothetically got caught. Since Bush is A Bush he probably would have gotten off with a warning unless the quantities were huge enough that one of his consigliere had to be thrown under a bus as a sacrifice. I would be surprised if a Bush got a drug conviction on their permanent record unless, for some reason, they wanted it (in which case they’d just buy one…)

    Since Obama was poor and black, he probably would have had his life ruined – until he got his Ivy League magic decoder ring and, even then, it probably would have scuppered his chances of elected office if he had a drug conviction. Now that he’s part of the Establishment (of sorts, though obviously there is a part of the Establishment that still thinks he’s only worth having a cast-iron replica of to tie horses to) he could probably snort the stuff off of Hillary Clinton’s ass, as long as it was part of some appropriate power-sharing deal.

  9. slc1 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #8

    I don’t recall if Obama used drugs before he was accepted at Columbia but, if he did and had been caught with them and convicted, it is doubtful if he would have been accepted at Columbia. In any case, unlike Bush who would have received a slap on the wrist at most, Obama probably would have spent some time in the slammer, which would have put paid to any political career.

  10. scienceavenger says

    @#8: “…he could probably snort the stuff off of Hillary Clinton’s ass…”

    Gee, thanks, just the image I want wafting through my mind…

  11. says

    “he could probably snort the stuff off of Hillary Clinton’s ass, as long as it was part of some appropriate power-sharing deal.”

    Marcus, WWBJTOYWIUOSD*I?

    HE would think, “It’ MY BIRTHDAY, for fuck sake! Lambs, calves, angles, sheperds–that’s all I wanna see, no bad porn!”.

    Where were we? Oh, yeah, Obama’s treatment after a drug bust v Bush the Deuce. We don’t have to wonder about Bush’s treatment for a DWI. (http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/celebrity/george-w-bush-dui-arrest-record). Never mind Laura Helmethair’s univestigated (or unrecorded investigation) t-boning of her classmate’s (and, possibly, boyfreind’s) car in Midland, TX when she was a teen.

    Yeah, those folks upstair, they just live different lives.

    * What Woud BABY JESUS Think Of Such Widly Inappropriate Use Of Such Disturbing Imagery

  12. valhar2000 says

    Why do so many people who argue against legalization bring up as examples of what will happen if drugs are legalized things that are already happening? People are already getting high, they are already committing crimes to pay for their habit, they are already locked out of the non-criminal segment of society by the drug use: all of these evils already exist, and they are just as bad, or worse, under Prohibition than they would be without it.

    Once I read and (generally smart) conservative arguing that people who argue in favor of legalization should be willing to pay for all the costs associated with it (higher crime rates, DUIs, etc.). I agree, but, conversely, people who argue against legalization should be willing to pay for its cost (DEA, drug-related law enforcement, the prison system, etc.). In other words, higher taxes for them and lower taxes for everyone else until the Drug War ends.

    I bet the famous conservative self-reliance will disappear in a puff of smoke in that ever comes to pass.

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