Jack Marshall has proclaimed yesterday “Remember What Drugs Cost Society Day” in honor of actor and comedian John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in 1982. It’s worthwhile to remember the dead, and it’s important not to forget that recreational drug use can lead to tragedies. Had Jack left it at that, I wouldn’t have any objection, but Jack can’t leave it at that.
The District of Columbia is poised to completely legalize pot, which will be the most ringing of government endorsements of societally destructive personal conduct, in a malfunctioning culture that should not be placed at further risk.
I find it amazing that Jack thinks that by making something no longer a crime, the government is giving it a ringing endorsement, as if there is no middle ground for conduct that is undesirable but nevertheless tolerated in a free society. One of the most vivid descriptions of the banal evil of totalitarianism is that “everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.” Endorsement is not truly compulsion, but in conflating legalization with endorsement, Jack is nevertheless seeing the world in an oddly totalitarian frame.
One of the errors in Jack’s reasoning is to think that the path from ethics to policy is as simple as “behavior X is bad, therefore we should make behavior X a crime,” without giving due consideration to the costs of doing so. Those costs can be especially high when it’s not just behavior X that is criminalized, but a superset of behavior X and a bunch of other behaviors Y and Z that are thought to be somehow related to behavior X.
John Belushi died of an overdose of heroin and cocaine, but the anti-drug laws don’t just prohibit giving someone an overdose of those drugs. They make it a crime even to use these drugs even in safe quantities. In fact, the mere sale and possession of these drugs is prohibited. And Jack is arguing that Belushi’s heroin and cocaine use is somehow relevant to marijuana law, even though marijuana is a completely different kind of drug. We’ve even gone so far as to criminalize certain cash transactions because they might be used to hide money that might have come from selling illegal drugs. And we allow police to violently invade people’s homes when they are suspected of possessing both drugs and toilets down which to flush those drugs. The people on this page are dead because we’ve followed a policy of outlawing drugs without considering all the consequences.
It also makes me furious that a talent like [John Belushi] gave himself so little time to entertain us, because he killed himself with an insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.
While it’s tragic that John Belushi died, it seems odd to lament the loss of being entertained by him in a post advocating continued drug criminalization. John Belushi wouldn’t have had much time to entertain us if he’d been in prison on drug charges. And let’s be honest, most of the rest of the writers and cast of Saturday Night Live would have been right there with him in the cell block. I’m guessing getting raped in the showers would have killed their sense of humor.
(Yes, if drug cops had thrown John Belushi in prison, he might have lived. But John Belushi is an exception. Most drug users don’t die from it. Most don’t become addicted. How many of them are you willing to imprison against their will to stop a guy like John Belushi from killing himself? I’d have trouble justifying any answer other than zero.)
Jack seems to argue that Belushi owed us some sort of duty of entertainment, and that to ensure that people like him continue to entertain us, we need to be able to lock them in a cage for using drugs. This is kind of a creepy claim on some other person. I’d be willing to dismiss it as just my imagination, except that he also takes a similarly paternal interest in black people:
This overwhelmingly black, poor, educationally-challenged and struggling population needs competent, trustworthy leadership and an injection of values. It is a community, after all, that idolized the late Marion Barry, a mayor who smoked crack on the job, and never apologized for it. It’s not surprising that the adults in the District would tell the young African-Americans that it’s cool to spend their your money to get stupid, to avoid clear thought rather than practice it.
Whereas Jack would rather put the District of Columbia’s young African-Americans in prison, because there’s no way that a five-year stretch in a cage will teach them bad values, impair the quality of their education, or break up families, right?
This isn’t just paternalism, this is the perpetual false argument that we need to punish people “for their own good,” that we ought to punish people for doing things we consider unwise, that some people just can’t handle freedom. It’s no wonder that Jack has trouble understanding why some black people see similarities between the modern incarceration state and slavery. Southern slave owners would have said that Africans are too simple and child-like, that they needed the slave owners to take care of them and see to it that they were good Christians. Drug warriors say that we have to imprison black people so they won’t do drugs. Every oppressive system has an excuse for why some people have to suffer.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good
of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live
under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.
The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may
at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good
will torment us without end for they do so with the approval
of their own conscience.”
— C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock” (1948)
For the record, I think C.S. Lewis is wrong about the robber barons. They’re worse, because they don’t have consciences to trouble them, and cannot be encouraged by reason to change their minds, because that would be to oppose their own interests.
But that doesn’t let the moral busybodies off the hook, because it turns out you don’t have to hate people to cause them a lot of harm. The well-meaning can do quite a lot of damage with the best of intentions.