A kinder, gentler prohibition

The prohibitionists know that the con game they have to sell is a pig in a poke that that the public has seen through, which is why they keep trying to put lipstick on it.

You have Kerlikowske, for example, constantly touting the notion that there is no drug war, and that the ONDCP is moving away from the extremes to a “third way” – a balanced approach including law enforcement. Of course, what all that gobbledegook means is that we have a drug war with some extra money for forced rehab.

It’s also a problem for the nation’s only full-time prohibition-spinner Kevin Sabet, as demonstrated in this debate with Ethan Nadelmann at Reason Marijuana and States’ Rights: A Reason Debate. Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelmann and Drug Policy Institute’s Kevin Sabet debate state cannabis initiatives.

Kevin had to know that the Reason crowd wouldn’t be too thrilled with prohibition, so he downplayed the effects of it. Ethan countered:

It’s not true – although I wish it were – that “most places punish the use of small amounts of marijuana similarly to a speeding ticket.” Few people are handcuffed or taken to a police station or incarcerated in a jail for speeding tickets, but all those indignities routinely are applied to people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Government employees won’t lose their jobs for a speeding ticket but they may very well for a marijuana possession arrest. Punishment can be even more severe if the person arrested is among the roughly five million Americans on parole or probation, often for very minor offenses. Millions of Americans have suffered much worse than the equivalent of a speeding ticket in recent years for nothing more than being caught with a little marijuana.

Now Kevin has often tried to suggest that we shouldn’t treat mere possessors of marijuana so harshly and here he doubles down with this rather bizarre response.

Ethan’s points would make good sense only if our choices were so stark. Besides full blown prohibition-enforcement for marijuana on the one hand, and legalization on the other, there are plenty of things we can do to get rid of the worst parts of our current laws (the things Ethan mentions —job loss, being cuffed, etc.). But that is not a good reason for legalization. That’s a compelling reason for some kind of specific reform. Given the risk we would take by legalizing marijuana — including the risks of increased use, accidents, and health and social costs [pdf] — it seems reckless and uncaring to go to such extremes in order to fix parts of the law that we can all agree are especially egregious. Ethan, would you abandon your legalization efforts if we got rid of the indignities you mention and yet kept marijuana illegal?

What would be the point? If you get rid of all the things that make enforcement of possession laws egregious, then you’re essentially creating a semi-legal product that can only be distributed by criminals. Why not regulate and control the distribution?

This is one of the big lies of the prohibition-spinners. They don’t want to reform prohibition. They like it just fine. They’ll tell you that they don’t want to lock up the small-time user, but they don’t discuss how that small-time user gets supplied.

There is no such thing as a kind and gentle prohibition. It’s harsh and ugly and wreaks a tremendous amount of havoc. And we can’t solve those problems unless we deal with drug use and abuse within a non-prohibition model.


The comments at the debate are quite entertaining. This one from Zeb was my favorite (I’ve long hated the “lost productivity” argument).

“alcohol costs society over $200 billion in lost productivity”

Fuck Off, asshole. My potential productivity does not belong to society.

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33 Responses to A kinder, gentler prohibition

  1. Irie says:

    The thing that gets me is the argument of (there are so many, but just to name ONE) is how if Cannibus is legalized, how many accidents will occur. HELLO, we are already driving stoned, illegal or not, and drunk driving is still king among accidents!! That lie/argument does not fly with this girl, try again Kevvie!

  2. ezrydn says:

    I love Kev’s opening answer. As an educated person, he MUST know the use of the word “but” negates the lead in, or words prior. Now, go back and read that opening sentence again. Old NLP trick. Use of words pinpoints meaning, or changes same.

  3. Rita says:

    Why does Ethan Nadelman wish that people were ticketed for drug possession? Does he actually believe that we’re going to end the drug war without ending prohibition?

    • Pete says:

      Ethan was employing a rhetorical device. He isn’t wishing for decriminalization. He’s saying that, for the sake of the people who have been handcuffed, lost jobs, etc., he wishes what Kevin said about only getting tickets now was true.

  4. claygooding says:

    I bet Kevin doesn’t want to do that again,,his hyperbole didn’t work and Nathan negated his talking points too effectively for him to even argue the points,,,just moved on to more GIGO. thnx Mike

  5. darkcycle says:

    Left this at the last thread by mistake:
    Kevin is a busy boy. I cannot WAIT to put him out of a job. *sigh* I assume he’ll just go to work for a tobacco company…

  6. Maria says:

    +100 on the “lost productivity” argument. I wonder how much lost productivity occurs because people have sex, read books, go for walks, or play with their kids. Live life.

    It’s such a soulless dehumanizing way of seeing people. All we are is this “potential productivity”? Like some walking talking hard drive capacity to be filled up or the light hours of a bulb to be used up at the flip of a switch.

    Also, career prohibs will never acknowledge anything as a “good reason for legalization.” Ethan showed the absurdity of this line quite well. As long as information flows prohibition will fall.

    • Francis says:

      Yeah, I loved that comment. I find the “lost productivity” argument especially irritating when it comes from self-described “conservatives,” i.e., the same folks who declare “it’s not the government’s money” when the issue is income taxes. I also like to ask the people who make this argument what they think being locked in a cage does to a person’s productivity? Or being unemployable as a result of a drug conviction?

      • Maria says:

        Got a bit curious about that. I did a quick search for “lost productivity due to drug conviction” and came up with the infamous 1992 NIDA study. This is annoying. I’ve read a few well balanced studies trying to address that questions before but I can’t find them ATM. Just that ancient NIDA one. PDF

        Of course, it’s a propagandist slog as they tend to run with the assumption that all individuals convicted, in treatment, or incarcerated = individuals with drug abuse issues who wouldn’t have a job or the same economic potential as ‘normal people’ in the first place. So from the get go it’s a wee bit warped. Despite that they try and cover their bases with:

        “The calculations are based on the assumption that in the absence of drug and alcohol abuse, prisoners’ potential productivity would be equal to the productivity of the general population.”

        Despite this lovely statement it seems that a fair amount of obscure statistical adjustments are used to make-up for expected behaviors. These behaviors are of course based on the assumption above. All incarcerated, in-treatment, convicted individuals = drugged out career criminal zombies who wouldn’t really be working or productive members of society anyways. And by productive we mean earning the average of 40k a year (or 26k for women).

        “There were 1.3 million person-years spent in prisons and jails in 1992. Total person-years by type of offense (by gender) were multiplied by the appropriate attribution factor to yield an estimate of about 600,000 person-years incarcerated during 1992 due to alcohol- and drug-related offenses. The resulting total person-years were multiplied by the average expected annual productivity (market plus nonmarket) of about $40,000 per year for males and $26,000 for females (including adjustments for expected labor force participation and employment). The total value of lost productivity due to incarceration is estimated at $23.4 billion ($5.5 billion for 140,000 person-years for alcohol-related offenses and $17.9 billion for 460,000 person-years for drug-related offenses).”

        They do however admit in bits that even in the cases where an individual wouldn’t be at ‘normal productivity’ due to their drug use, the effect of incarcerating them brings their net productivity down to a big fat 0. So there’s that.

        Add up the costs and lost productivity involved in the judicial process, the incarceration process, and the post incarceration process and the ‘lost productivity’ argument is one that Mr. Sabet might want to reconsider lest it bite him in the ass.

        • Pete says:

          I did a bit of an analysis of the report from the DOJ in 2011 here: National Drug Intelligence Center fails intelligence test

        • Francis says:

          And what about the millions of man-hours that prosecutors, judges, attorneys, cops, prison guards, parole officers, professional piss-testers, etc. spend each year keeping the machinery of the drug war humming along, grinding up its victims? Imagine if those folks spent all that time actually contributing to society.

          And to the extent the drug war is successful in its aim of deterring the use of certain drugs, I’ve always believed that its primary effect is to channel that demand into legal (and generally more harmful) alternatives like booze. How much “lost productivity” do you think is attributable to work absences caused by a good old-fashioned alcohol-induced hangover? I’m not proud of it, but I had a few of those myself in my younger, less responsible days. But I can’t say that I’ve ever missed work as a result of a cannabis-induced hangover. Weird, isn’t it?

        • Maria says:

          Pete, I’d missed that post. Thanks. That’s a great analysis and going in the bookmarks. I was so focused on the flawed assumptions surrounding productivity that I missed the most surreal fact.

          Are you serious? That study assumes the context of a world without drugs and drink?

          So, I’m left to scientifically conclude it’s actually from an alternate reality where humans do not exist. Of course, in that context the net human-hours of productivity drops down to 0. Or maybe it becomes infinite potential since humans haven’t evolved yet?

    • Cliff says:

      We are only ‘Human Resources’ to the prohibitionists and only worth what we produce.

      • Matthew Meyer says:

        Although if I think about it, I’m sure what they really care about it my ability to get a job and *consume* all the schlock they’re selling.

        • allan says:

          and… if you happen to become addicted to consuming they do indeed have a pill for that too…

        • Matthew Meyer says:

          Martin Lee’s new book on the American cultural history of cannabis observes of Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” that it reveals addiction as the default condition of the modern consumer.

          In a twisted way, the demonization of drug consumers seems to draw a comforting moral line between “addicts” who are to be despised and pitied, and normal “consumers” who are the basis of civilization.

      • kaptinemo says:

        And the truth runs much deeper. To peg Human worth solely as a measure of ‘productivity’ is an indictment of society in general. More correctly, an indictment of those who run it.

        Both Capitalism and Socialism were guilty of the same sin. The capitalists were only more brutally frank about it.

        It’s no accident we’re going through such troubled times. Certain forces want the American people to be politically and socially atomized. And they have largely been succeeding.

        And threatening Labor with retaliation via drug testing (which, as the recent scandal reveals, is anything but objective) is a perfect means of circumventing the odious method of directly challenging Labor’s (all too often) legitimate grievances, by using the faux rationale of ‘public safety’ and ‘worker safety’ to rationalize the otherwise naked oppression. ‘Productivity’ is not so much the goal but the means; a means of causing that political and social atomization, to reduce people to machines.

        As an old Trekker, I can recall an episode from the first series in which an important speech was given that puts a lot of this in perspective:

        Portmaster Stone: [interrupting counsels arguing between themselves] Counsels will kindly direct their remarks to the bench.
        Cogley: [moving to the judge’s dais] I’d be delighted to, sir. Now that I’ve got something HUMAN to talk about. Rights, sir! Human rights! The Bible, The Code of Hammurabi, and of Justinian, Magna Carta, The Constitution of the United States, Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies, The Statutes of Alpha III. Gentlemen, these documents all speak of rights. Rights of the accused to a trial by his peers, to be represented by counsel, the rights of cross-examination; but, MOST importantly, the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him – a right to which my client has been denied.
        Areel Shaw: Your Honor, that is ridiculous! We’ve produced the witnesses in court. My learned opponent had the opportunity to see them, cross-examine them…
        Cogley: All but one! The most devastating witness against my client is not a human being. It’s a machine, an information system – the computer log of the Enterprise – and I ask this court adjourn and reconvene aboard that vessel.
        Areel Shaw: I protest, your honor.
        Cogley: And I repeat, I speak of rights! A machine has none. A man must. My client has the right to face his accuser, and if you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the level of the machine! Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us! I ask that my motion be granted. And more than that, gentlemen – in the name of a humanity fading in the shadow of the machine – I demand it. I demand it!

        As do we. For those who presently run society are ‘the machine’, seeking to make us all in their light. Which is why we’ve had the slow, steady erosion of our rights and liberties…and dignity. Drug prohibition has been their handmaiden from the beginning. And a blow struck in favor of ending it is one struck in favor of freedom, itself.

        • darkcycle says:

          Ya know Kap’n, I was sittin’ here thinking about this and I reached an epiphany (assisted as I was by this yummy Sour Diesel I been smoking).
          My productivity does belong to me. To assert otherwise is to imply that I somehow owe a DEBT of some sort to society. A “Debt to Society” is how we refer to THE TIME SERVED BY PRISONERS. This “lost productivity” argument assumes we are prisoners at worst, slaves at best. They must really think of themselves as our masters. I’m with Zeb.

  7. Francis says:

    Kevin’s argument is incoherent. You either think that cannabis users should be treated like criminals or you don’t. And if you don’t think they’re criminals but do think the state had an interest in discouraging cannabis use, the obvious solution is regulation and taxation. A fine for possession is essentially a tax that’s only paid by the small percentage of consumers unlucky enough to get caught. Instead of raising revenue for the government, this approach continues to cost taxpayers billions and leaves in place all of the problems associated with black markets. It’s absolutely asinine. But I continue to be encouraged by the fact that not even professional drug war apologists can defend cannabis prohibition without misrepresenting it.

  8. stevo says:

    Nadelmann wins again! That guy is awesome. Glad he’s on our side. The comments section is entirely one sided in our favor. Where are forty whatever percent of the population that supposedly still supports prohibition? Nonexistent, or too afraid to try to defend their evil postion.

    • Duncan20903 says:


      I think I’ve figured out where that “forty whatever percent” can be found. If you look at articles about sports figures that have run afoul of prohibition you’ll find that we’re outnumbered in the comments. Here’s one from the last week or so:

      Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. suspended
      By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

      Former middleweight titlist Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was temporarily suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission on Tuesday in an expected procedural move because of his positive test for marijuana in the wake of a unanimous decision loss to world champion Sergio Martinez on Sept. 15 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

      It isn’t that we’re in such a substantial majority. It’s because majority of those sympathetic to prohibition are more concerned about sports and other pedestrian pastimes. Another place you’ll find those sympathetic to prohibition is in articles about celebrities, e.g. Lady Gaga’s recent controversy over smoking a joint on stage in Amsterdam. The sycophants just aren’t particularly concerned with the controversy over the law. My speculation is that these people just aren’t actually aware that the controversy exists.

  9. kaptinemo says:

    How many times does it have to be said? Just as no amount of work can make a lump of mud into an apple pie, no amount of ‘tweaking’ can get an historically-proven, hopelessly failed policy such as substance prohibition to work as promoted.

    No shibboleths, no incantations, no Philosopher’s Stone, no clicking your red shoes 3 times and wishing real hard, nothing, nada, can get this beast to do anything more than what it already does, and that’s to destroy the society it was supposed to save. You can’t housebreak the damn thing; it craps where it will. Worse, it growls and snaps and bites and wounds and kills its’ owners. Nothing to do but put the damned thing down, once and for all.

    Kevin Sabet is little more than a modern, less histrionic version of arch alcohol Prohibitionist Billy Sunday. But what comes out of his pie-hole is no less empty of informational value…or logic.

  10. medicinal says:

    I have a rhetorical device for #ksab to consider.

    What’s the appropriate fine or jail sentence for an unrepentant adult cannabis consumer? Or for a producer? What are appropriate accompanying civil penalties?

    Make him defend his answers to these and watch him tie himself up like a morality pretzel.

  11. Servetus says:

    A kinder, gentler witch hunt…a kinder, gentler Holocaust…a kinder, gentler Kevin…some things just don’t wash. Prohibition is one of those.

  12. Freeman says:

    Mark Kleiman is pushig an article he co-authored with the usual suspects, saying all the usual things.

    The esteemed professor signs his name such distortions as:

    The hundreds of thousands of marijuana-possession arrests do not fill many jail cells because it is primarily drug distribution, not use, that puts people in prison.


    the possession conviction might have been … the result of a plea bargain down from a distribution offense

    without acknowledging the fact that possession of ludicrously small amounts of marijuana automatically counts as “distribution” under the insane drug laws. One plant in your closet will do.

    High-quality marijuana retails for around $300 per ounce” when they compare price to what they exaggerate it might fall to, but down to “roughly $200–$300 per ounce of high-quality marijuana” when used to downplay how much tax revenue might feasibly be available to glean off a legal industry.

    They predict that usage would increase sharply with legal availability of cheap weed, but — get this! — all that consumption would actually “create more unemployment than it would legitimate jobs for those who are now producing and trafficking illegally” because “If legalization were to triple and the number of users and the quantity per user remained the same, all of the resulting demand could be satisfied by less than 30,000 acres of farmland” and that’s so tiny compared to “75 million acres of American soil planted in soybeans“. So there! Too bad so many of those non-tax-withholding-and-reporting jobs performed by “those who are now producing and trafficking illegally” will end in unemployment. Will they be eligible for unemployment benefits? WTF??!!??

    It’s not all misinformation and spin, though. I found this tidbit quite instructive.

    Michigan’s proposed Constitutional Amendment to End Marijuana Prohibition comprised just 88 words that would have simply repealed all civil and criminal penalties pertaining to marijuana cultivation, manufacture, sale or any other activity by adults who were not incarcerated—with the sole exception of operating a motor vehicle while impaired.

    There is historical precedent for such “repeal-only” plans, as opposed to the Washington or Colorado “repeal-and-regulate” propositions. New York State repealed its prohibition of alcohol in 1923, though Federal alcohol prohibition continued for another decade. The courts have made it clear that no state is under any obligation to criminalize an activity just because the Federal government does so.

    I carefully weigh their speculations, for reasons described above, but this one sounds about right:

    [The federal government,] “short of massively expanding the DEA payroll, could do essentially nothing to stop a legalize-only action such as the Michigan amendment“.

    • strayan says:

      Why are some drugs legal and others prohibited? There is some logic to the distinctions; crack and methamphetamine really are quite seductive substances whose use can readily spin out of control, and not just in an unusually vulnerable minority of the population.

      Food is quite seductive too isn’t it Kleiman? Perhaps we should throw this guy in jail:


      Oh wait, that’s you!

      The myth of drug induced addiction is alive and well.

    • Freeman says:

      It just occurred to me that the pot vs. soybean comparison is even more ridiculous when you consider soybean subsidies. Hey, maybe we can get the government to even things out with a nice cannabis subsidy! Make a little ethanol from the leaves and there’s a good chance!

  13. http://tinyurl.com/9rfgxwz

    These prohibitionist attacks that have become common this last few weeks before the elections are not really fooling anybody anymore. The Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey does a good job of putting things into perspective (talking about marijuana promoted as an addictive substance by prohibitionists):

    “The few people who continue to argue otherwise all seem to be in anti-drug work. They are making a living from prohibition, and they are seeing the worst cases. Their world is not representative and their view is not fair.”

    The more the Kevin Sabets and Robert DuPonts of the world keep up the rhetoric, the more obvious the lies and exaggerations become. I am actually starting to enjoy watching as the now savvy public listens to the prohibitionists creating the food for thought for those light bulb moments.

    • kaptinemo says:

      And no small part of that is that generational shift I’ve mentioned before.

      Think of it: the chickens are coming home to roost, in a tectonically seismic way. Those who have, for their entire lives, been subjected to social engineering on a massive scale…are coming into their own. They were never the tabula rasa robots their tormentors thought they’d be. And they don’t like what was done to them one bit.

      They only provided the ‘politically correct’ answers to the script, while thinking their own thoughts, as all kids do. Sure, they said the things the prohibs wanted to hear…and laughed at them behind the school yard, toking up while wearing their DARE T-shirts and snickering at adult gullibility.

      And now, having reached their majority, they are in a position to provide a huge slap in the face of their former tormentors. After all those years of being subjected to ever greater indignities and affronts to their liberties in the name of ‘saving them from drugs’, they will now be able to save themselves and perhaps the rest of us from the predations of these faux ‘do-gooders’.

      Make no mistake: the generation that has been subjected to ‘Just Say No’, for their entire lives…will just say No! to prohibition at the ballot box. They will literally be providing a vote of no confidence in the DrugWar in its’ totality. The ramifications of that are beyond calculation.

      Pols will have to make a major review of their own stances WRT to the results of that seismic shift; if they want to keep their jobs, they better jettison their culture war BS and quick, as the former ‘kids’ they harmed with their nonsense are now in a position to vote…and they have long memories.

  14. Cliff says:

    “They’ll tell you that they don’t want to lock up the small-time user, but they don’t discuss how that small-time user gets supplied.”

    They’ll also conveniently ignore the fact that the “small-time user” will be denied the right to make a living with the drug testing barrier to employment.

  15. thelbert says:

    kinda makes me wish nancy reagan didn’t have alzheimer’s so she could savor the unravelling of her plans.

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