Politicians: Have you talked to your constituents about drug policy?

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5 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Alex,

    I don’t see it as a “taboo” political topic. To the contrary: The issue comes up all the time, as posts such as yours suggest. Indeed, I would guess that Senator Grassley wants to amend the bill out of a sense that without the amendment, the report could focus on the issue. That’s not a problem with truly taboo subjects; no one worries that such a report might recommend the legalization of child pornography, for example.

    Rather, I think the dynamic is the predictable strategy of those wanting to defend the status quo versus those wanting to challenge it. If you like the status quo, you don’t want to have folks spending a lot of time and attention questioning it. If you dislike the status quo, on the other hand, you want folks to spend a lot of time and attention questioning it. I gather from this post, and your recent op-ed in favor of marijuana legalization, that you are one who want to challenge the status quo.

  2. Alex Kreit says:

    Orin,

    Thank you for your reply, I think you raise some good points. I agree that defenders of the status quo of a given issue would, strategically, not want to have folks spending a lot of time and attention to questioning it. I also agree that drug reform is not a taboo subject in the way some truly taboo topics like the one you reference are. And, perhaps my use of the word taboo was a bit inartful. My point is not that these topics are never discussed in our society (they certainly are)–it is that I believe the level opposition to even discussing drug policy reform among politicians as unique to the issue (especially relative to other issues with comparable levels of public support.) In short: while there are plenty of issues that defenders of the status quo would prefer be considered “off limits” by (most) politicians/policy makers, drug policy reform is the only issue I can think of that has a significant level of popular support but actually is off-limits.

    Thinking about the Grassley amendment as an example, the Webb bill would take a comprehensive look at a wide range of criminal justice issues and it is no secret that one of the chief motivations for the proposal is his belief that our incarceration rate is far too high. But, of all of the potential reforms the commission may consider (many of which, I am sure, Grassley would not be pleased with), drug policy is the topic that he has introduced an amendment on. In light of the fact that the far-from-conservative Obama administration says that the terms aren’t even in the President’s vocabulary, I can’t imagine Grassley thinks there is any special threat that the commission would actually lead to the decriminalization or legalization of any controlled substances. Instead, I think that there is a fear/perception that even the discussion of decriminalization or legalization is, in part, an admission of defeat (or a sign of weakness) in our “war” against drugs and that it therefore must be avoided as harmful in itself.

    Yes, in part this is also about other things–poll numbers, the fact that discussing an issue may lead to more support of it, etc. etc. But, I think that these considerations do not fully account for the special concern and fear over simply talking about drug reform (not to mention drug use) that pervades the political discourse. Returning to marijuana legalization, for example (not because I think this is an especially important issue relative to all of the other drug policy issues, but because it is one where we have recent and reliable polling), I cannot think of another issue that has between 40-45% support among the public and that prominent politicians from both parties not only nearly universally oppose but also nearly universally say is not even worthy of discussion (e.g., Gressley’s amendment or Kerlikowske’s “not in my vocabulary” line.) Think of the issue in comparison to, say, gay rights. An issue like medical marijuana is probably just as popular as repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”; legalizing marijuana is about in the same ball-park in popularity as is gay marriage. Yet, President Obama gave a keynote speech at a Human Rights Campaign dinner but literally won’t even acknowledge the word “legalize.” Of course, there are a wide range of factors that account for the difference between those examples [e.g., that gay rights is viewed as a civil rights/moral issue in a way that drug policy reform is not], but I think it does still provide a bit of perspective. And, at the least, it calls out for some consideration as to what does account for these sorts of differences.)

    This is all a somewhat lengthy way of saying that while the topic of drug policy reform is by no means entirely off-limits in our society, it is shunned and avoided by the political class in our country in a way that I believe is highly unusual. And, I think, it is interesting to theorize as to just why that might be.

  3. My theory is that the political establishment has already done such horrible things in the name of fighting drugs, ruined so many lives, even killed people over it, that to reform our drug laws is to admit that these things were done in vain, maybe even for a wrongful cause. It’s to admit that the political establishment has done evil.

    And so they keep doubling down, because admitting that they’re doing wrong is inadmissible.

    There’s also the matter that the war on drugs, like the perpetual war in 1984, is a wonderful excuse to expand the power of government. At least part of the political class don’t want to lose the “drug war exception” to the Bill of Rights.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful repsonse, Alex. I guess I would want to know more about the polling: Is the 40-45% in favor of legalization a stable number nationwide? Or is that just one poll, or in a particular place?

  5. Alex Kreit says:

    Rasmussen, Zogby, CBS and Gallup have each come out with polls within the past year showing between 40-44% nationwide support for legalizing marijuana. (To be honest, I was a bit surprised myself that the numbers are where they are on the issue–I probably would have guessed mid-to-high-30’s prior to these polls.)

    The Gallup poll, which is the most recent of the four, is here and includes some interesting numbers on the breakdown for regions of the country, political identity, etc.: http://www.gallup.com/poll/123728/u.s.-support-legalizing-marijuana-reaches-new-high.aspx

    Rasmussen, Zogby, CBS discussed here: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/02/americans-growing-kinder-to-bud.html