First Pat Robertson …

No, John McCain didn’t come out for legalizing marijuana. But he did say something more subtle and interesting.

… now John McCain. Or that’s what I thought when I saw the HuffPo headline:

John McCain On Marijuana:
‘Maybe We Should Legalize’

Actually, that’s not quite right. McCain was saying something more subtle, and it mostly wasn’t about marijuana.

First, he made a perfectly sensible point about drug policy generally: as long as there’s a demand for illicit drugs in the U.S., there will be a supply from Mexico, which puts the onus for Mexican bloodshed above the border and not below it. (Later he went on to say that we ought to have a “conversation” about drug-related incarceration.)

Responding to shouts of “Legalize it!,” McCain said:

Well, maybe we should legalize it. We are certainly moving that way so far as marijuana is concerned, but I will respect the will of the people.

Since the problem he was discussing was drug smuggling, which is mostly drugs other than cannabis, I take “Maybe we should legalize it” to be about all drugs, not just cannabis. Then he notes that the actual trend of policy is in that direction as far as marijuana is concerned. I’m not sure what interpretation to put on “I will respect the will of the people,” unless it means “I’m not for it unless the polls back me up.”

So no, I don’t think McCain was really joining the Robertson camp. But it does seem as if he might go much further than that – might vote to get rid of the drug laws altogether – if he thought the voters would let him get away with it. Complete legalization of everyting is probably a bad idea, and certainly an idea without much mass support. But it has a lot more hidden elite support than you might guess. And McCain seems to think he can now get away with flirting with the idea. His belief on that point is evidence.

Friends of marijuana legalization – a much more plausible idea, in my view, than legalizing cocaine or meth – should, I think, take heart from learning that McCain isn’t really coming out on their side. After all, what are the odds that Robertson and McCain are both right about something? Pretty long, I figure.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “First Pat Robertson …”

  1. Giving addicts some kind of legal avenue to get a hold of the substances they are addicted to, one in which the profits of that sale do not go to violent criminals, would be the best public policy decision possible. For hard drugs, this would not look remotely like marijuana legalization, where sales will be more like alcohol and cigarettes than like percocet and oxycontin. But hard drug users should be required to see social workers or doctors of some sort, and then given permission to buy controlled amounts of hard drugs from state-run vending points.

    Anyway, McCain is just like every other politician on this issue. He’ll never lead on it, but he’s happy to vote the way the people want just as soon as he thinks he won’t take a political hit over his flip-flop.

    1. I think that is basically right, but there are 2 problems- 1, make it too hard and you get a black market, and 2, politicians will always be tempted to put too many substances on the “hard to get” list, something we have already seen in the government’s punishment of allergy sufferers because other people use meth.

      So we should err on the side of giving the government less power in this area- there are just too many people who see recreational drug users as a group that should have no freedom to take risks.

  2. But the bloodshed in Mexico isn’t due to the drugs being illegal in the US, but their being illegal to produce in Mexico. So, that puts the onus right back in Mexican territory, except to the (considerable!) extent we’ve compelled them to make that production illegal.

    I mean, it’s illegal for them to export workers to the US, too, but I don’t think it’s producing a lot of violence in Mexico, since it’s not illegal on their end.

    1. I’m not sure we (Americans) can so easily evade responsibility for the drug violence in Mexico. For a start, to say that the responsibility lies south of the border except to the extent that we’ve compelled them to make that production illegal is transparently silly–that “extent” is so near to complete as makes no difference. If the US legalized pot on Monday, Mexico would legalize it on Tuesday. And if they tried to get ahead of us on this, Washington would drop a hundred hammers on them. I’d expect a number of important flows of money and diplomatic support to dry up, and probably some really ugly sanctions and God knows what else.

      American demand drives that market, American law ensures that only criminals can import the stuff, and American power ensures that production remains illegal in Mexico. The results are an American responsibility.

    2. Brett,
      I’m sure you’re down with the whole “self-deportation” thing. Why don’t you believe that these workers “self-imported”? Sure, they most likely had to pay off all kinds of illegal institutions to get across the border, but they and only they made the decision to come north. Workers have autonomy, no matter how inconvenient that might be to the authorities, capitalists, FauxNews, bloggers of certain ilk, and raging fanatics who don’t understand it’s not folks taking bad jobs at the bottom of the heap but the lack of substantial numbers of quality jobs for those who typically wield considerable privilege in our society that is at the root of our economic problems.

      Do you really think ensuring that only Americans compete for dirt-poor, often illegally underpaid jobs will help anyone in this country — except some lawbreaking employer looking for labor on the cheap?

      Speaking of autonomy, with all the market forces brought by free-market fundamentalism like NAFTA and globalization on the typical kid in Mexico, the ramped up violence brought about largely by US enforcement priorities that ensure maximal bloodshed among the gangsters has spilled over into the streets of Every Ciudad, Mexico. Folks come to the US for their families to be safe, an irony considering our policies do every bad thing possible to accelerate and spread that violence. No one will win the “drug war” by shooting, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of casualties. And, yes, we here in the USA share in the blame.

  3. I think you’re probably reading too much into McCain’s comment. “Legalize it” is a slogan that has always referred to marijuana. Even if McCain doesn’t know that, the drug warriors have traditionally always referred to marijuana as “drugs,” and aren’t very careful in conversation about distinguishing it from more harmful substances.

    1. McCain said this off the cuff, and I wouldn’t at all interpret this as John McCain becoming the 1st US Senator to support legalization, either of marijuana or any other drug. Let him hear from a few law and order officials, he’ll sing a different tune in public next time we hear from him about “drugs”.

  4. That’s the same sort of argument against authority as I make saying, well, the Times AND Stiglitz want Yellen over Summmers, so I must want Summers…

  5. Interestingly, our local decidedly Republican news rag has been dead-set against any relaxation of laws vs. marijuana, medical or otherwise. They simply repeat whatever DARE tells ’em to, buying into the very worst stereotypes long discredited in most credible media, even when they, too, oppose marijuana. After going on, same-old, same-old, about the new Holder memo leading us closer to the abyss this week in a lengthy editorial, it rather surprisingly concluded that marijuana legalization was coming anyway, so we might as well get used to it.

    Politicians like McCain are pretty darn good at seeing the coming tsunami and catching the wave when they can most easily ride it. Whatever he actually intended by his remarks, the fact that he made them at all is indicative of a towering force of realignment heading for the beach when it comes to marijuana.

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