Ordell tells Melanie that too much weed will sap her ambition. Melanie responds, “Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.” Jackie Brown, 1997.
As a society, we’re in the process of accepting the obvious truth that pot is never going away and that impairing hundreds of thousands of lives with criminal prosecutions is cruel and wasteful. Decriminalization is a good thing.
What’s not a good thing is letting decriminalization blur into officially normalizing pot use by setting up a government-approved infrastructure for distribution so that we can tax it. Is there no middle ground between imprisoning people over something and giving that thing the government’s seal of approval?
Criminal penalties deter crime, but the mechanism isn’t as simple as weighing the advantages of a crime against the weighted probability of getting caught and convicted. Ironically, the direct deterrent effect isn’t even the main reason we make actions criminal; the law works more subtly than that. Let’s get clear about how deterrence functions in society.
First of all, the potential for punishment does not deter real criminals from committing crimes. People don’t so much become criminals by committing crimes as they commit crimes in order to be criminals. There will always be amateurs, fools, and the unlucky for whom jail is an awful accident but real criminals admire, like, and aspire to “the life” and accept spending some percentage of their time in jail as a necessary risk. They’re like gamblers. People don’t gamble in order to lose, but the truth is, they don’t gamble in order to win, either. For gamblers, losing and winning are equally necessary to their chief joy in life, which is gambling. In much the same way, the risk of jail and the thrill of the score are equally essential to the joy of crime, and in that sense, to the true criminal, punishment acts as much an incentive as it does a deterrent.
The law’s main concern, however, is non-criminals, not criminals, and it is non-criminals whom penalties deter most strongly. Nevertheless, I doubt the penalties, per se, are the main thing that causes most non-criminals to not commit crimes. Above all else, non-criminals, i.e., regular people, crave respectability, and criminal penalties are a vivid expression of a society’s disapproval of certain behaviors. It’s not fear of the penalty itself, but the awful societal disapproval symbolized by the penalty that does most of the work.
The Pernicious Weed
Today, America is rushing to legalize marijuana and as part of our reorientation, the party line is that it’s essentially harmless.
The assertion that pot is harmless is cynically political, not factual. People say it, but does anyone seriously believe it’s true? It was never harmless and what’s around today is not your granddad’s pot. In the 60’s and 70’s, people sat around with friends and smoked “a few joints.” That much 2018 pot would lobotomize you.
In our teens and twenties we all knew what chronic use of marijuana did to you because we all had stoner friends, the guys and girls who lived the Melanie life. Stoners pretended to themselves that it made them insightful and creative, but they were notoriously idiotic—it was a rare stoner who’s creativity ever went farther than Bic pen doodles on a notebook cover.
There were always some people who could smoke once in a while, with no harm done, just like there are people who smoke cigarettes once in a while without ill effect, but for a large percentage of users, it’s a long-term brain-rot lifestyle, and very hard to quit. You don’t need a scientific study; anyone with two eyes can see it.
I think ex-chronic pot smokers will be the first to agree with this view.
Decriminalization and Revenue
Marijuana isn’t going away. It’s always been here, and using it has been a major mainstream practice for at least as long as I’ve been alive. So yes, it’s insane to select a tiny percentage of those who use it and destroy their lives by throwing them in jail.
The trouble is, the decriminalization has been hijacked by people who want to turn marijuana into a government cash cow. It immediately morphs into the Colorado model of legalized marijuana, which is built on regulating it’s sale so that it can be taxed.
The problem with this scheme is that by participating in the business, the government gives the recreational use of marijuana it’s seal of approval, just like alcohol and cigarettes. I like alcohol and tobacco myself, but they’re both undeniably a blight on the world. Unfortunately, when we tried outright banning alcohol it was a disaster.
Cigarettes would be easier to ban than alcohol but we have collectively decided (correctly in my view) that an outright ban goes beyond the government’s proper scope. Instead, we’re doing out best to systematically disapprove cigarettes to death and we’ve been doing a pretty effective job of it. The number of smokers is a fraction of what it once was, and has been bumping down generation by generation. There’s a day coming when cigarettes will be a niche product, like snuff or chewing tobacco.
Our success in discouraging cigarette smoking through disapproval makes deliberately decreasing society’s formal disapproval of pot the most cynical move imaginable. If it’s so harmless, how many legislators would be happy to see their kids take up? How many chronic pot smokers does anyone know who live happy lives of high achievement, and how many people who used to smoke don’t bitterly regret the time wasted? We all understand that X percent of those who use it will abuse it to their sorrow. Nobody knows what the exact value of X is but we all know it’s not one or two percent. Who among us doesn’t think X is a two-digit number?
What Should We Do Instead?
The alcohol and tobacco horses ran out of the barn centuries ago. Those drugs may be a blight, but they’re part of mainstream culture now and for the predictable future. The very last thing we should do is add marijuana to the list.
The law needs to take a two pronged approach. Maintain official disapproval and undercut the economics that support organized crime. We can drop criminal penalties without going the extra mile.
Make it illegal to smoke in public and illegal to provide to children, etc., and simply say nothing about what people do behind closed doors. Or better yet, make it illegal in private too, but have no penalty.
Society should continue to declare commercial production illegal, but not in and of itself criminal. We know how to do this without turning an entire industry over to organized crime. You get fined for raising chickens in town, or manufacturing unpasteurized dairy products, and we don’t see a chicken mafia, or a cheese cartel.
Likewise, we need stiff civil penalties for the commercial cultivation and distribution of marijuana, but we should simply shrug at people doing it in their basement or backyard, much as we do with making your own beer and wine. As with any other business, legal or illegal, commercial growers would be subject to penalties for tax fraud on undeclared income, and major fines for operating a large-scale farm or distribution network. Whatever the details, the key thing is that commercial production should remain illegal, but non-criminal, and private cultivation of modest amounts should be ignored.
The reason for a two-level law is economic. Pot’s a weed; ninety percent of the difficulty and art are in growing it illegally, not in simply growing it. It’s gardening. If it’s not criminal to grow in small amounts, say, under 250 square feet of cultivation, it becomes a cottage industry, like raising heritage poultry or making home-canned jellies and jams. Without the police keeping prices artificially high by suppressing small scale growers, it ceases to be something organized crime can make money at. There’s a reason you don’t see the Mexican cartels smuggling peach preserves or garden-grown vegetables.
Medical marijuana has been used as a wedge in the fight to make recreational marijuana legal.
Pharmaceutical companies and doctors jealously protecting their privileges claim that other anti-nausea drugs are just as good as marijuana but I’ve yet to meet a single user of medical marijuana who agrees. It can be great for pain, too, as well as a host of other ailments, and it’s dirt-cheap compared to most prescription drugs.
Medical marijuana should be a non-issue. Simply allow drug companies to do whatever the market wants with it as a prescription drug. There is no societal approval issue here–we already have a pharmaceutical market for many drugs that are also abused.
Whatever We Do
The details don’t matter so long as, whatever we do, we don’t, as a society, get into the marijuana business. Forgo the tax benefits. Governments will more than make that revenue back from the increased productivity of the millions of people who would otherwise end up like Melanie.