Polarization, denial, and the cannabis debate

Two long essays – one by Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone and one by Andrew Sullivan – share the theme of “Let Colorado and Washington alo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ne!!!!!” I mostly agree. But the rhetoric and reasoning in the two pieces reflect the polarized nature of the drug-policy debate.

Sullivan refers to people making money by growing and selling pot in violation of federal law as “law-abiding citizens.” Many of them are in fact otherwise law-abiding. But the Controlled Substances Act law is still the law, even if you disagree with it.  And Sullivan certainly isn’t outraged that the federal government enforces, e.g., environmental laws or truth-in-lending laws, even in states whose own rules are looser; is someone who fills in a protected wetland without a federal permit in a state that requires no such permit “law-abiding”?  Only if each of us gets to pick his own laws.

You can also read both essays through without ever learning that pot dependency is a real problem or that a large share of the current market involves sales to people with drug problems and to minors. Sullivan comes closest when he says that cannabis “is no more potentially damaging to a human being than alcohol,” which is a pretty low bar to have to clear.

As long as the opponents of our current insanely punitive drug laws remain in denial that the laws are (grossly suboptimal) responses to real problems rather than mere racist-statist artifacts of the culture wars (and as long as the drug warriors remain in denial about how badly their project is going and how much needless suffering it causes), it’s going to be hard to get serious policy discourse started.

But some of us keep trying.

Update A friend asks whether my even-handed denunciation of the mendacity on both sides of the debate doesn’t amount to a false equivalence, since the legalizers are currently much more aggressive. It’s true that what might be called the “balance of bullsh!t” has shifted; twenty years ago it was the prohibition side that had a huge megaphone for statements contrary to fact. That remains somewhat true within the corridors of power (not just in DC and the state capitals but also at the UN), but in the mass media, and especially in the on-line sector, it’s the legalizers who can find an outlet for any pseudo-fact they care to invent.

For example, see Alejandro Hope’s comment on the thread below: apparently Tim Dickinson converted his statement that pot legalization would cost the Mexican DTOs some revenue but that “the effect would not be devastating” into the claim that it would be “a devastating blow.” Alejandro comments: “in this specific case, denial veers very close to falsification.” I’m not sure “falsification” is the right diagnosis; I’d put it down to self-delusion on the part of Dickinson and his editors. “A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”