Thursday, February 5, 2009

Legalize it!

Right now, we are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars locking up our fellow citizens for possesing or using stuff which does no harm to anyone, except perhaps themselves. This is a rather ridiculous waste of resources which we could potentially be spending on valuable investments in education, mass transit, and health. These investments would not just boost the quality of life in our society, but in doing so would increase the productivity of the average American worker and could help sustain growth for decades to come. When you lock people up, there isn't much of a return on the money you spend keeping them in confinement- if anything, there is a negative return due to high recidivism.

The United States has one of the largest prison populations (as a percentage of its overall adult population) in the world, and this is an enormous drain on local government's budget. Perversely, certain regions, particularly parts of New York, have become so economically dependent on the prison industry that they need the influx of inmates just to make a living. This should tell us there is a bit of a problem.

Given all the massive problems we face, we really should not be so concerned if a few individuals choose to light a joint or shoot up. If anything, we could be using these industries to fund our national budget by bringing them into the formal economy and imposing steep taxes to discourage their use- but without locking people up. The revenues could be used on any number of programs, perhaps rehabilitation for those that have an addiction and actually need our help.

And plus, why does it matter so much if people do use the stuff if it helps them through their lives, or if they just feel it does? As long as the activities of users does not impinge on the legal rights of other citizens, what they choose to do with their free time is really none of our business. Our current approach towards anti-drug enforcement betrays a fundamentally nineteenth-century attitude towards social reform, which made it the duty of the engaged, god-fearing citizen to combat sin in any way possible, including through the use of the coercive power of the state. This kind of social policy-as-proselytization has no place in a modern, industrialized society.

But this is a mostly abstract argument about individual freedom and the role of society in dealing with the delinquent. What is more important is the fact that stricter anti-drug laws disproportionately affect the most economically vulnerable members of our society in a highly negative way. A ridicuolously large percentage of our minority population is festering under horrid conditions because of this weird, puritanical approach. When institutions lag behind the times, the results are often quite repugnant no matter the best intentions of those who manage these institutions.

I'd like to say we are moving towards a more progressive policy but that wouldn't be true. In more and more states obscure ethnobotanicals, especially Salvia Divinorum (which only rarely shows any negative psychological side-effects), are being added to the black list, ostensibly out of concern for the youth of these communities. The real reason is sensationalistic and irresponsible journalism on the part of Fox News, which frequently equivilates the effect of the plant to having an acid trip. The reality is way different- for starters, Salvia's effect lasts no more than 30 minutes, while an acid trip usually goes on for about 12 hours. A majority of users during test studies reported a sense of heightened well-being and connectedness to nature; hardly the results of a psychopathic frenzy. We could at least be focusing on the dangerous, unhealthy shit like methamphetamine which presents a real social problem in the central US, the "Red States," as they are known.

We should start improving this aspect of American life by legalizing weed and rolling back these new laws against ethnobotanicals, which have thus far caused no discernible social harm. As for weed, it is a pretty commonly used herb that has very mild health drawbacks if any. The worst risks are generally reported to be temporary memory loss and lung problems from the smoke itself. We should approach it almost the same way as we approach tobacco: make it socially unacceptable to use indoors with large groups of people, and tax it as much as needed, but at the same time don't try to ban it outright. I foresee it improving the psychological well-being of people once we've removed the stigma and the fear of being busted. Eventually, we should only ban the worst shit from general consumption- this would include meth, heroin, and PCP. That would inject a small dose of sanity into our law enforcement system.

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