How not to make a hash of marijuana legalization

The cover package in the current issue of Washington Monthly includes articles on cannabis legalization by Jonathan Caulkins, Jonathan Rauch, and me, under the heading “Saving Marijuana Legalization.” Mine has the wonderful title (which I think Paul Glastris gets credit for) “How Not to Make a Hash of Marijuana Legalization.”

All three pieces consider how to legalize cannabis rather than whether to legalize it. Caulkins and I both distrust the trend toward a commercial system on the alcohol model, and I’m also unhappy both about a pure states’-rights approach and about legislation by initiative. I also float the idea of user-set monthly purchase quotas, a “nudge” strategy that I claim might do some good and couldn’t hurt.

Michael Hilzik gives the whole thing a very nice write-up on the LA Times business page.

Footnote Depressingly, none of the LA Times commmenters makes a point that is either original or cogent. It’s like hearing from the Romneybots in the fall of 2012.

Cheap, at twice the price!



Shatterproof is a new organization intending to do for substance abuse disorder what the American Heart Association does for cardio-vascular disease: combining collective self-help, research support, and policy advocacy. What excites me is that the policy advocacy will be relentlessly aimed at reducing the damage, rather than at fighting the culture war (from either side). They had me at “addiction to alcohol and other drugs.”

I don’t have a clue whether they can bring it off, but after several long conversations with Gary Mendell, the founder, I’m willing to give it a shot.

And that’s where your part comes in. As a fundraiser, Shatterproof is organizing a group of us to rappel from the Westin in Pasadena a week from Wednesday. If you’re one of the countless people who would love to see me break my neck, you now have a chance to contribute to the cause. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I will get to the bottom in one piece, but that’s just the risk you take.

Angela Hawken will also be doing the reverse Rope Trick. I tried to explain that it would work better if people could contribute to prevent Angela from courting disaster, but it’s hard to fight organizational Standard Operating Procedure, so just go ahead and support her effort.

“Ten commandments”? Ain’t no such thing in the Bible.

I’m no longer the note-taker for the Hirshleifer-Rosett  Faculty Tanakh Study Group, so I haven’t been reporting on its activities in this space, but it continues to flourish; we’re now reading Exodus, and today we hit Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments.

Or, as it turns out, not.

It’s news to me, as no doubt to most of you, but that phrase does not occur in the Biblical text. In Exodus 32:28, when the original pair of tablets is replaced, the new tablets are referred to as containing “the words (דִּבְרֵי, divarai) of the covenant, the ten words (עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים , asheret ha-devarim).” (For reasons utterly obscure to me, the later tradition uses debrot, the feminine plural, rather than the masculine plural devarim.)

There’s no ambiguity here. “Commandment”  (מִצְוָה, mitzvah) is a key-term in the text, and in Jewish tradition. Its root is the word for “command,” or perhaps it would be better rendered as “instruction” or “guidance.”  A mitzvah is that which one is commanded or instructed or guided to do; the Talmudic rabbis counted 613 of them in the Torah.

Devar, by contrast, means “word” or “statement” or “speech”: thus the Greek “Decalogue.”  In particular, what the Jewish tradition has always counted as the first of the asheret devarim - “I am HaShem your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” – is not a command, but a statement of fact. It serves as the first of ten clauses making explicit the covenant to which the Children of Israel had already assented (Ex. 19:8).

I’m not sure when or how the mistranslation happened. But once again we see the great wisdom of the founders of Harvard College (as a Congregationalist seminary) in requiring entering students to know Hebrew.

Update Commenter Raghav Krishnapriyan corrects my Hebrew. (Only in America!):

(1) עֲשֶׂרֶת should be transliterated /aseret/. The dot on the upper-left of the shin turns it into a sin. 
(2) Dibrot (not debrot – under most circumstances, you can’t have two consecutive shvas at the beginning of a word) isn’t a feminine plural: it’s the plural of a different word, diber (דיבר), meaning “utterance.” While dibrot looks like it should be feminine, it’s actually part of a class of masculine nouns that have feminine-sounding plurals. You can find a list of other such words here.
(3) דִּבְרֵי should be transliterated /divrei/ or something similar, since that’s a shva under the vet. It’s simply devarim in the construct state (smikhut).



What makes torture OK?

The Nation and the Guardian both carry stalwart defenses of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela against Yanqui imperialism and its counterrevolutionary allies in the streets of Caracas.  Curiously, neither account picks up on this sentence from an AP story:

Maduro said Friday that San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, a member of the same party as Lopez, would soon join the jailed opposition leader behind bars for fomenting violence. “It’s a matter of time until we have him in the same cold cell,” Maduro said.

The “cold cell” refers to the use of hypothermia as torture. I seem to recall that when the cold cell was being used on the orders of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, progressives – including writers for The Nation and the Guardian – tended to be rather critical of the practice. I wonder what might make this circumstance different enough to allow support for a regime whose leader openly boasts about torturing his opponents?

When he’s right, he’s right

I rarely agree with Ross Douthat, but his column on Putinism nails it: there’s really no serious alternative to the liberal order.

Now, can Douthat convince his increasingly illiberal Republican allies? Workers’ rights, the safety net, reproductive freedom, environmental protection, religous and ethnic tolerance, and respect for science aren’t optional. They’re part of the basic package.

Machiavelli, James Q. Wilson, and the paradoxes of crime control

This week Pepperdine University will hold a conference on the thought of James Q. Wilson, and I will present a paper called “Wilson’s Machiavellian Cruelty”. The first half of the paper argues that Wilson’s failure to acknowledge that punishment is cruel led him – and those of us who followed him – into avoidable errors. The second half tries to construct a crime control strategy to keep crime rates moving down while reversing the disastrous move toward mass incarceration.

A central problem is the paradox of punishment pointed out by Plato and (more pithily) by George Bernard Shaw:

Punishment requires injury.
Reformation requires improvement.
Injury does not improve.

I would appreciate comments from those with expert knowledge on the relevant topics.

Yanukovich’s media pawns

In light of this week’s mass killings by thugs working for now-deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, last year’s Buzzfeed story (and its predecessor) about how Ukrainian government cash generated stories on right-wing websites seems even more interesting. Either writers for RedState, Breitbart, and PJ Media wrote stories for money, or they were dumb enough to do it for free. So far, they aren’t saying which.

Of course, the oppotunity to trash Hillary Clinton as an anti-Semite for supporting the position of most Ukrainian Jews, and to trash Obama as Putin puppet for opposing Yanukovich (now hoping that Putin will use the Russian Army to return him to power) was too good to pass up.

Footnote And what the hell was the Podesta Group doing working for these thugs?

Making lemonade

White-on-black homicides make liberals aware of the retributive functions of punishment.
I’d rather not have the homicides, but when life hands you a lemon …

Much of the internet chatter about the Michael Dunn case has focused on outrage that the jury hung on the murder charge, convicting the killer instead on three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing a gun. Despite that chatter, no one has found that Dunn was justified in killing Jordan Davis. A hung jury means only that at least one juror didn’t believe that the state had refuted Dunn’s claim of self-defense beyond reasonable doubt, or alternatively that the jurors couldn’t agree as among the alternative charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter.

But now the discussion turns to sentencing (assuming that Dunn is not retried on the murder charge, or is acquitted of it, or that juries keep hanging).

What are the arguments for and against sending the killer away forever?

One of the benefits of a harsh punishment is that it announces and enacts social disapproval of the underlying act. In this case, where some white people seem to think they have a hunting license on young black men, a harsh sentence will help change that opinion, and help shift perceptions of the wrongfulness of the act. (I think we’ve seen this happen with both drunken driving and domestic violence; it’s part of the logic behind “hate crime” enhancements.)

Another benefit of a harsh punishment is that it acts to reaffirm the social value of the victim; again, that seems relevant to this particular crime.

What counts as a harsh punishment depends on the background flow of punishments. For those of us who think that the current sentencing regime is obscenely excessive, that sets up a tension in cases such as this one; a short sentence would send the wrong message about how wrong it is to go hunting for black scalps, while a long one would reinforce the pattern of excessive incarceration. In most European countries, a 15-year sentence would count as ferocious; here, you can get that much for drug-dealing.

In this particular case, where the murder required no physical strength and where it seems to have proceeded from longstanding animus rather than merely momentary passion, there’s also a case to be made for incapacitation; this is someone who might well kill again. Note that he’s already said that his night in jail strengthened his underlying racism, which didn’t really need it.

Say he gets out of prison after 15 years. During that time he will have joined the Aryan Brotherhood, as most white prisoners in bad state prisons find they need to do in self-defense. It’s not easy to see why he would pose less of a risk then than he does today.

So I hope the judge stacks the sentences. Three counts of attempted murder at 20 years each, plus one count of gunfire at 15 years, comes to 75. A 15% discount for good behavior would get the 47-year-old Dunn back on the street sometime in late 2077, at the age of 111. That seems about right to me. It’s the punchline of the old joke:

- “But Your Honor, I can’t do 75 years in prison.”
- “Son, you just do the best you can. That’s all we ask.”

Footnote By the same token, white-collar crime and public corruption are terrible things, but – when they’re prosecuted and lead to incarceration – they help create conservative prison reformers. Hey, it’s not much, but if you do crime-contol policy for a living in this country and don’t develop a sense of humor and the habit of looking on the bright side you’re going to wind up offing yourself.

Second footnote Yes, Dunn was coming from his son’s wedding and had a few drinks inside him. If he’d killed someone under the influence of cocaine, or even cannabis, we’d be hearing about the risks of drug abuse. But when someone kills under the influence of the drug most commonly involved in violence, it barely rates a mention.

Bank regulation and state-licensed cannabis sales

As promised, the Treasury Department and the Justice Department have issued new guidance designed to allow state-licensed cannabis enterprises access to the banking system.  That’s something the Administration had the legal power to do, and that will actually make a difference, but I’m not expecting any of the people pounding the “rescheduling” drum to notice that the distinction.  

Legislation would be better, of course.