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September 2008



In which I talk about Jonathan Caulkins again

I’ve got to admit, I’m having a little bit of fun with this, despite the deadly serious nature of the issues…
Jonathan Caulkins steps back into the fray in “The Discussion” part of the Cato Unbound series.
You may remember that I had previously accused him of either deliberately distorting the meaning of the Erowids’ comments, or being dumb as a rock. Well Jonathan defends himself (not from me, actually, but from Jacob Sullum’s more polite version of that assessment).

I fully agree with Sullum that saying modern humans must relate to psychoactives responsibly is not the same as denying an individual‰s right to choose temperance. However, the Erowids‰ full statement was

Modern humans must learn how to relate to psychoactives responsibly, treating them with respect and awareness, working to minimize harms and maximize benefits, and integrating use into a healthy, enjoyable, and productive life.

I explicitly wrote that ‹most of that assertion is innocuous,Š but singled out the part about the necessity of integrating use into life as not respecting someone‰s right to choose not to use a drug.

I still don’t see how you can take that philosophical statement about the class of “modern humans” and claim that the Erowids are “denying or denigrating an individual’s right to choose temperance” and thereby being “not worth engaging.” What does he think that they are suggesting? That police will come door to door and make sure that everyone has taken their psychoactive drug for the day? Or is Jonathan afraid the Yippies will dump LSD into the water supply (although such a scenario today is actually more likely to be the fault of the DEA).
So I’m confused here. It appears to me that anyone with a reading comprehension level above 4th grade knows that the Erowids are not denying individual choice. But Caulkins still believes it. So what is going on? Let’s get your view:

OK, now here is where my head explodes again:

I‰m not sure, as Sullum suggests, that I ‹clearly [believe] it‰s appropriate to forcibly protect people from risks they voluntarily assume.Š I approach such issues on a case-by-case basis, with a strong prior bias against government intrusion. However, if my side loses in the political process, and a restrictive law is passed, I think it is my responsibility to accept the disappointment gracefully and comply with the law

Let’s break that down into manageable chunks.

  1. He’s not sure he believes it’s appropriate to forcibly protect people from risks they voluntarily assume
  2. He supports laws that do so if they’re passed

If it’s not appropriate to forcibly protect people from their own risks, then how can a law that does that be appropriate? I’m guessing that what he is trying to say is that personally, he would like it if the population would choose to respect the rights of individuals, but if they don’t, that’s their choice, and one shouldn’t worry too much about it.
Interestingly, he does posit cases when such laws would be inappropriate:

I believe a citizen‰s general obligation to obey democratically enacted laws holds in all but extreme cases; examples of exceptions might include overtly racist laws such as the former apartheid laws in South Africa. A law can be misguided or ineffective or paternalistic without being unjust in the sense of nullifying one‰s duty to obey that law. […]
However, if my side loses in the political process, and a restrictive law is passed, I think it is my responsibility to accept the disappointment gracefully and comply with the law (again, assuming the law is constitutional, is not akin to South Africa‰s old apartheid laws, etc.).

Hmmm…. Well, putting aside his implication that drug laws are constitutional (worth an entire discussion in itself), he does find instances where it is OK not to comply with the law, (eg., if it is “akin to South Africa’s old apartheid laws”)
Does Caulkins realize where he just stepped? No, he’s clueless. And that’s because he also thinks that prohibition is free, and that drug laws are simply about whether or not people are allowed by law to use drugs, and have no relationship to their collateral damage such as this:

US Sentencing Commission found that black drug defendants receive considerably longer average prison terms than do whites for comparable crimes.
This is not a geographical fluke: a 2007 Justice Policy Institute study found that in Florida blacks were 75 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs while driving than whites; in 1991, blacks were 7 percent of St. Paul’s population but 62 percent of those arrested on drug charges; and in Onondaga Country, Syracuse, N.Y., black people are currently 99 times more likely to go to prison for drugs than white people.
There are more black men in US prisons today than there were slaves in 1840, and they are being used for the same purpose; working for private corporations at 16 to 20 cents an hour. Half the states have private, for-profit prisons whose lobbyists are demanding longer mandatory-minimum prison sentences. Indeed, American blacks are incarcerated at nearly eight times the level of South African blacks during the height of apartheid.

What was that you were saying about apartheid, Jonathan?
And here’s another point. When he says “I believe a citizen‰s general obligation to obey democratically enacted laws holds in all but extreme cases” what does he mean by democratically enacted? Are we talking about how marijuana became illegal at the federal level?
Sure, in a properly working democratic system, there is procedural recourse for bad laws. The people can simply vote for change. However, when the academics who speak to the press and the think-tanks mis-represent the effects of the laws by denying discussion about legitimate options and leaving out any talk of the negative consequences of prohibition, and when the government officials are required by law to use taxpayer money to lie to the citizens about the drug war, then how is an informed populace supposed to come about?
If the people are prevented from being well informed, perhaps the Representatives can step up and do their duty to pass responsible legislation on behalf of the people… But Oh no, the drug war is the third rail of politics. No politician can vote against the drug war. Particularly when the academics and government agencies are lying to the people.
But our constitutional government has other safeguards. There’s always the courts… Oh, but wait — the Supreme Court has a drug war exception to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. They even found a way to make growing marijuana under state law within the state without selling it magically become interstate commerce, and to allow a dog’s mood to trump the Fourth Amendment.
Ah, but there’s the ultimate safeguard, bringing it back to the people — the jury system. Except that judges now routinely exclude jurors who disagree with the law, and even, in the case of medical marijuana cases in federal courts, prevent defendants from telling juries the truth.
So what would Jonathan Caulkins have us do, when we have an apartheid sized problem in our laws, and the system of democratically enacted laws is subverted so as to deter corrective efforts?

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