How not to count the costs of drug prohibition

One of my regular web surfing stops is Ethics Alarms, a thought-provoking blog where ethicist Jack Marshall writes about the ethical dimensions of various events in the news. I often disagree with what he has to say, but the discussion is usually interesting. Recently, I had an argument with Jack in the comments to this post, and I thought I would share some of it, since it illustrate some differences in how he and I think about the ethics of various social policies.

His post covers a range of subjects raised by a debate held by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In response to George Will’s objections to a national “distracted driving” law, he wrote this:

One of the good uses of absolutist reasoning is that it raises a very high bar before breaching a valid principle can even be considered, since it has to be considered as an exception if it is to be contemplated at all. Barring unsafe conduct that increases the likelihood of automobile accidents, however, is not the place for absolutism, but for utilitarianism — rational balancing.

Note his emphasis of utilitarianism. Keep that in mind while I go over his response to Congressman Barney Frank’s idea:

Barney Frank’s cause was, predictably, legalizing marijuana… Pot advocates like Frank, and I have been listening to them most of my life, pretend that recreational marijuana use consists of single, unencumbered, financially secure and mature individuals with no obligations and no responsibilities to others sitting in their homes or dorm rooms toking away and being blissfully and harmlessly stupid for an hour or three. If pot use was restricted to this, I would agree with him. But it is not, and cannot be.

Why not? I mean, if he believes that effective pot prohibition is possible at all, why would laws against it not be effective if applied only in situations where it’s dangerous?

In society we are all bound to each other by bonds of mutual dependence and trust. A bus driver who smokes pot is risking the lives of young children. A student who smokes pot is sabotaging his education, and making it likely that you and I will have to pay the costs of his progressively unsuccessful life as a result.

So lets prohibit driving a bus while stoned, and lets put an age limit on smoking pot, as we have on smoking tobacco. I don’t think anybody in the marijuana legalization movement seriously wants to make it available to children, or wants to allow people to get high while doing dangerous jobs. This was a straw man.

A husband who smokes pot and makes mistakes at work is jeopardizing the welfare of his children and family.

I responded to this in a comment:

Whereas your plan to throw him in jail will be wonderful for his family.

It’s one thing to say that something is unethical on utilitarian grounds, and quite another to say it should be treated as a crime. Your utilitarian calculations should include the harm caused by enforcement, otherwise you can make any policy sound great if you don’t count the cost.

To which Jack responded with a strange accusation:

I just don’t buy this — it’s a “think of the children!” rationalization. Sure, families suffer when parents break the law. The responsibility for the consequences, however, are 100% on the lawbreaker. And as you know, I apply this to immigration enforcement as well.

And he’s just as wrong about that too, and for the same reason, which is that he’s not doing his utilitarian calculations right, as I explained in my response:

Huh? You’re the one who brought the children into this. I’m just trying to be consistent in counting the costs. You say “There is no social utility for getting stoned whatsoever,” so the fact that dad enjoys getting high doesn’t count. But dad gets high at some cost to his family, so that counts. But when the police arrest him and lock him up, thus hurting his family even more, that doesn’t count. It seems like you’re just picking and choosing whatever benefits and costs support your intuition that pot smoking is wrong.

Jack’s response:

No, Mark, that’s not right. I brought the children in as individuals that the parent has an absolute duty to care for and that society has an interest in seeing that he doesn’t make it impossible for him to do so.

By jailing him? Thus making it impossible for him to do so? The stated purpose of this law is being undermined by the enforcement of this law.

The legal system considers family impact as a secondary factor in sentencing, but it should never be a factor in making a law and enforcing it.

Remember, Jack started this discussion by advocating for a utilitarian analysis.  That means adding up the benefits and the costs, and you have to include all of the benefits and costs. It’s cheating to pretend that that you can analyze a criminal law without including the enforcement mechanism in your analysis. The enforcement process does not stand outside of society. Its effects on society have to be counted like everything else.

The presumption, first and foremost, when a law is made is that responsible, ethical, law-abiding citizens will obey it, thus greatly reducing the conduct the law seeks to prevent.

This is a fair criticism of my point. The laws against marijuana use have a deterrent effect, and if you believe that pot smoking is bad for families, then it’s possible that the benefits to families of deterring drug use will make up for the harm caused by jailing family members. I don’t believe it, because I believe the harm of drug prohibition is immense, but it’s a logical argument.

Those who choose not to obey the law can’t blame either the law or the government for the consequences of their actions, and neither should we.

(I didn’t respond to Jack’s last comment, because by that time lots of other people were posting comments arguing with him, and it seemed pointless to continue as part of the hoard. However, he stayed in and continued to argue with them in the comments, which speaks well of him as a blogger.)

This is where Jack is going badly wrong. Utilitarian analysis is not about blame. It’s about benefits and costs. I’m all for letting people suffer the natural consequences of of their actions. That’s only fair. But imprisonment is not a natural consequence of smoking pot. It’s a consequence of the policy of pot prohibition, and the harm from imprisonment has to be included in the analysis of that policy. I’ve hit on this theme in my blogging elsewhere, and I’m going to say it again here: When we harm people, the suffering they experience is the same, regardless of who we are, why we harm them, or who they are.

It’s just as bad to imprison a murderer as it is to imprison an innocent person from the point of view of the imprisoned person. I know of no reason to think a murderer suffers less in prison than an innocent person. The difference is that the suffering of the murderer is justified because of the enormous benefits to everyone else of having him in prison. The suffering of the innocent produces no benefits whatsoever, and thus it’s a terrible loss to society.

Which brings us to the suffering of the pot smoker in prison, which is of course the same as anyone else in prison. Under a benefit-cost analysis, whether it’s justified depends on the benefits to society of imprisoning pot smokers. An intellectually sound response would be to claim there are offsetting benefits. But to pretend that the cost doesn’t exist is baseless.

Every hour stoned on a recreational drug is one less hour spent on productive activity that could benefit one’s dependents, colleagues, community and society. Every dollar spent on getting stoned is one less dollar that could be used to start a business, feed a child, pay a debt, or save. It is purely selfish behavior with real social costs and minimal benefits.

The same could be said of all other recreational expenses — movies, television, sports, music, fine dining — if you believe that those have no benefits. For example, I get no benefit from many sports –hockey, football, skiing — and if they vanished from the face of the earth, I wouldn’t miss them, and the dollars spent on them could be better spend feeding children, paying debt, or saving for the future. Therefore, using Jack’s logic, and mistaking my personal preferences for the laws of the universe, I could propose outlawing all of them.

I don’t advocate that, however, because I prefer to let people make their own choices about their lives. They know more about their lives than I do, and are more motivated to make correct decisions, since they pay the consequences. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone else, why would I care? How could I justify hurting people for making their own decisions about their own lives?

Like getting drunk, using marijuana may be relaxing or fun, but there are many, many ways to have fun and relax in America that don’t undermine the rest of society.

Smoking pot in a responsible manner doesn’t undermine society. Just because someone isn’t 100% on top of their game every minute of the day doesn’t make them a criminal. They don’t owe the rest of us every bit of their time and effort.

Once again, the ethical trade-off is an easy one — a society without people wasting their time and money making themselves periodically slow-witted, inarticulate and stupid is undeniably a better society to live in than one that encourages such conduct, and making the conduct legal does encourage it.

I kind of agree, which is why I don’t use pot and rarely drink alcohol. And frankly, I think you shouldn’t either. If we could just all agree not to do drugs, that would be a great thing. But that’s not how drug prohibition works. Drug prohibition involves sending armed agents of the governments to invade people’s homes, waylay them on the street, lock them in a cage, and take all their stuff, while occasionally shooting people or their dogs in the process.

That’s not a better society.

Barney likes his weed; it poses no danger to him, he can handle it, and he’s annoyed that he has to break the law to get high. And all the less intelligent, less responsible, younger, vulnerable Americans — and those who support or depend on them — whose lives will be diminished by free access to pot? Barney just doesn’t care, so he talks as if they don’t exist.

And obviously, Jack doesn’t care about people like Barney, who can handle their weed. Jack wants to throw them in prison too, and he doesn’t care they they are not part of the problem. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since Jack also thinks it’s okay to kill innocent civilians in war because he doesn’t believe they’re really innocent.

Drug prohibition isn’t just about stopping people from using drugs. It’s about empowering government employees to use intrusive and violent methods to stop people from using drugs. I don’t think it’s worth it, and I don’t think this is a cost you can ignore.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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