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.
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