Scott Sumner  

Obama is to the right of Texas on pot legalization

Frank Furedi on euroskepticism... Reply to Cardinal Rodriguez Ma...

Here is just one example of the Obama administration's reefer madness:

Robert Duncan, who managed marijuana-growing for a collective of Northern California medical marijuana dispensaries, surrendered to federal prison Monday, where he will serve a two-year sentence.

Speaking to HuffPost Live's Marc Lamont Hill outside Mendota Federal Correctional Institution near Fresno, Calif., just minutes before he surrendered, Duncan said he was "frustrated" his incarceration would cost taxpayers upwards of $100,000.

"It's constantly in the news how much we're pouring into our prison system," Duncan said. "There's momentum for change, and the change isn't happening."

Duncan, an employee of the collective, received a modest salary for his work and sought legal advice before taking the job to ensure he would comply with state law. Although California voters legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes more than 17 years ago, the plant remains illegal under federal law, and the grow house was raided by U.S. authorities.

Despite indications from the Obama administration that the federal government wouldn't intervene with state-sanctioned marijuana operations, Duncan was charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office with manufacturing pot. After spending more than $30,000 in legal fees, he took a plea deal that resulted in his sentence.

Hill asked Duncan if he had anything to say to President Barack Obama about his situation.

"It's a lot bigger than me," Duncan replied. "There's a lot more people affected by this. It's not too late to do something different and to take bigger steps in the direction that the United States wants us to go. There's no need to send people in this situation to prison. Do what the people want you to do."

Recent polls indicate that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. Moreover, eight out of 10 Americans are in favor of using cannabis for medicinal purposes, and nearly three out of four support a fine-only penalty for recreational users.

Obama's defenders say he privately favors pot legalization, but can't say that publically because the American public would be outraged. And these are his defenders. Here is a poll result from one of America's more conservative states:

If the results of recent polls are correct, it seems that Texas residents want what other states have: legalization. A poll conducted by The University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed that 77 percent of registered voters in Texas believe in some form of legalization. Of that, 28 percent would agree only to medical legalization, while 49 percent are in favor of blanket legalization.
Kids today can't understand why old folks had a problem with gay marriage. I couldn't understand how old folks had a problem with interracial marriage. My grandparents couldn't understand why Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Each generation has its blind spots. The next generation will be amazed that Obama enforced the medical marijuana laws even more vigorously than George Bush.

It's the kind of issue that causes giggles among the "very serious people" at places like the New York Times and WaPo. They don't personally know any families that have been destroyed because mom went to prison for violating pot laws. They just remember their college days--and none of their college friends went to prison for hosting pot parties. They don't know any of the 800,000 people arrested for violating pot laws each year. Better to focus on the "real issues," like one possible deserter being swapped for some Taliban leaders. Or the top 1% making too much money.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime

COMMENTS (30 to date)
Tom West writes:

I can understand that Obama can't make a move on drug laws without getting obliterated politically, but I *don't* understand the factors that go into increased enforcement. Surely the best way to attack regulations you don't like is to simply gut the enforcement of them.

However, I've learned over the years that idea of the man at the top making all the decisions is usually completely wrong.

I'd love to know what the interplay of personalities and powers are that are causing increased enforcement. Is this actually directed by Obama? Is he trading increased enforcement for support somewhere else? Is there someone or some faction mitigating for increased enforcement that he doesn't have the time/energy/political capital to stop?

I suspect we'll only learn about much of the why's in the next decade or two, if ever.

Then we'll find out that hundreds of thousands of lives were hurt because two advisers were arguing with each other, and one prevented a subcommittee from meeting that could put this topic on an agenda somewhere and the other retaliated by refusing to allow a member who could propose the agenda to be seconded to a second committee that must approve the agenda before it can be proposed to a third committee.

ThomasH writes:

Obama has a dilemma. If he supports an idea too soon, it will destroy it's chances with Republicans. Look what happened to Romneycare style health insurance reform and cap and trade. He fell into line prematurely and they turned on him. He managed gay marriage better by not endorsing it until it was too late for Republicans to mount a counterattack.

Scott Sumner writes:

Tom and Thomas, Pot legalization is far more popular among the public, even among conservatives, than gay marriage. It's not even close. So that explanation doesn't really work

This Duncan guy screwed up. He should have joined the army, gone into a war zone, and defected to the enemy. Then he'd have Obama on his side.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

This post and the post at themoneyillusion today have been especially edifying. Thanks.

Dan Hill writes:

@Patrick - no he should have put on a uniform and thrown a flash bang grenade in a baby's crib. Then the law would be on his side.

Tom West writes:

Scott, I'd respectfully argue that public opinion is only tangentially related to the political damage pursuing an agenda causes compared to perceived motive.

To flip it around, I think Obama takes vastly *less* political damage from vigorously prosecuting the drug war compared to a Republican candidate, who would be perceived as deliberately sabotaging poor people's lives because he's (happily) catering to his law-and-order base.

Likewise, I think Obama would take vastly more political damage for being "pro-drugs for our children" (aka Pot legalization) if a Democrat pursues it.

Every policy has its downsides, but if you're perceived as having a natural slant towards those policies, then you're also perceived as being indifferent, or even even embracing those downsides.

Carl writes:

Scott, your use of "right" in this context is somewhat baffling.

Jeff writes:

[Comment removed for name-calling. Email the to discuss editing your comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Carl: 'right' -- people more likely to want to police the use of your body and less likely to want to police use of your property.

'left' -- people more likely to want to police use of your property and less likely to want to police the use of your body.

See same-sex marriage, debates over. See Scalia J, judicial decisions of.

Mike W writes:

And here's the other side's position:

But in a letter to Davies' attorney, Elliot Peters, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in Sacramento said: "Mr. Davies was not a seriously ill user of marijuana nor was he a medical caregiver – he was a major player in a very significant commercial operation that sought to make large profits from the cultivation and sale of marijuana."

Wagner detailed a plea bargain offer of six to seven years in federal prison, which Davies hasn't accepted.

Federal prosecutors say one of the venture's dispensaries grossed $3 million a year, producing a profit of over a half-million dollars and that partners also operated two cultivation centers, including one with more than 2,000 plants.

While all marijuana, medical or otherwise, is illegal under federal law, the case illustrates the challenges of California's vague medical marijuana laws.

State voters approved medical marijuana use in 1996, but California's billion-dollar industry of dispensaries has thrived under the hazy language of a 2003 law, Senate Bill 420. It declared that medical marijuana patients can "associate" to "collectively or cooperatively cultivate marijuana for medical purposes" but made no mention of pot stores or commercial cultivation.

NZ writes:

@Lorenzo from Oz:

No, Carl is correct. Scott's use of "right" is baffling, because the Left created drug prohibition--and have been the most consistent enforcers of it. The more one supports drug prohibition, the more one is to the left of others who do not. The many conservatives who today support drug prohibition and include this support as part of their conservative identity have been bamboozled (by Neocons, as it happens).

Not only is drug prohibition the Left's cause, it is a cause which embodies and exemplifies their whole position: "We elites will push our immoderate ideas down you Regular Americans' throats, even if the consequences are directly opposed to your interests".

In fact, drug prohibition is a cause which was central to the birth of Progressivism itself. Without drug prohibition there might not be a Left as we know it today.

Another baffling thing Scott does is call the war on drugs (and gay marriage) generational "blind spots", as if A) the two are similar in this way and B) the term applies at all.

A generational blind spot, as I see it, is when a situation is like X for a while, then a generation comes along and turns the situation into -X because they are naive, misled, or malicious. The fad movement against vaccinations would be a good example of this: it crops up, gets stronger, stays around for a few decades, then goes away. It is in decline now.

The war on drugs, by contrast, was dreamed up three or four generations ago and its most important tenets remain popular. Most of its mythology is still swallowed whole, even by millenials and even by people who say they support drug legalization.

The war on drugs has been able to remain popular because it is not a single policy "blind spot", but a large all-encompassing philosophy of government, and one which is primarily concerned not just with top-down cultural imperialism, but with globalist interventionism. Without globalist interventionism you can't have drug prohibition. Not to any real extent anyway.

Gay marriage also fails the generational "blind spot" test. Gay people, first of all, have never been very interested in marrying (and by the numbers, they still aren't). And why should they be? Marriage is a way for heterosexual couples to solidify the bonds that facilitate childrearing in a stable nuclear family.

Past generations could no more have a blind spot to gay marriage than they could have had a blind spot to Facebook and Twitter. These are inventions of recent times.

Finally, Scott's equating of drug prohibition to gay marriage is erroneous. On both sides of the drug prohibition argument, there can be scientific assessment of our drug laws' merits and historical analysis showing their wider consequences, positive or negative.

With gay marriage there has not been--and cannot be--any debate this rational. It has always been an issue propelled by emotional rhetoric about rights and equality, with anecdotal sob stories as its empirical data. When these fail it falls back on faulty comparisons to other "rights" movements, with the last resort always being shaming and appeals to fashion ("your views are behind the times" "your views are outdated" "you'll be on the wrong side of history" "get with it" etc.).

This isn't to say that drug prohibition and gay marriage aren't connected in any way. Both are pet issues of the Left, both are being levied in the name of globalist interventionism, and both seek to disrupt a quiet social harmony that once was able to exist on its own, replacing it with political machinery that destroys vital cultural institutions.

Scott Sumner writes:

Thomas, When President pursues and incredibly evil and overwhelming unpopular policy he deserves criticism, but that's just me. One can dream up defenses for any action, but that doesn't make them persuasive.

Carl, See Lorenzo.

Mike, That's not the "other side," that supports my argument.

NZ, You are over thinking this; an analogy does not have to be perfect in every respect. In both gay marriage and pot legalization the younger generation is much more rational than their parents. That's how generational changes in values occur. I agree that attitudes on other issues like hard drugs are still quite barbaric. I was discussing pot.

NZ writes:


Aside from merely supporting the same side as you, in what ways are the younger generation more "rational" about either gay marriage or pot legalization than their parents?

NZ writes:

WRT my above question, let me elaborate in case you're wondering where I'm going.

With pot legalization, the younger generation basically use the following set of arguments or some variation of them:

  • It's expensive to criminalize pot;

  • It's not nice to lock up so many people;

  • I should be able to put whatever I want into my body;

  • We could solve all our financial problems by legalizing and taxing pot;

  • Pot doesn't influence anyone's behavior in a socially harmful way;

  • We need to legalize pot because it's a medicine;

  • Being against pot legalization is uncool because Richard Nixon started the war on drugs and he's an old uncool racist white guy.

These arguments can be divided into those that are ineffectual because they are irrelevant to the actual reasons pot is illegal, and those that are ineffectual because they are based on false information and/or logic.

These ineffectual arguments have been used for decades. To continue using ineffectual arguments is irrational, yet that is what the younger generation continue to do.

Meanwhile, there is only one rational argument for gay marriage: "We gay people want to solidify the bonds that facilitate childrearing (thanks to adoption, IV fertilization, previous relationships, etc.)in a stable nuclear family. We'd like our marriages to be officially sanctioned so that we can do this as easily and as often as everyone else."

However, I don't think I've ever seen a gay marriage activist make this argument. Perhaps one has made it, but this is certainly not the argument the gay rights movement puts out.

The younger generation are largely supportive of gay marriage, but they spout of a lot of irrational claptrap about rights and equality. In fact, the younger generation don't really care much about marriage in general. A Pew study from a few years ago found that 44% of people under age of 24 believed that marriage was obsolete.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

NZ Claiming that drug prohibition is a "left" cause is made up history. It has been largely bipartisan: President Nixon, for example, declaring "war on drugs".

Alcohol Prohibition was fairly Republican; opposition fairly Democrat. (Hence the claim it was the Party of Rum, Romany and Rebellion.)

Same-sex marriage is a great deal older than that, being known to many cultures. Moreover, equal protection of the law is the real principle, and has continually won in the end, as it will this time around too.

Carl writes:

I'm not being obtuse for the hell of it. To me the addition of the "right" label in the context of Sumner's post just muddies the water. It doesn't explain anything to me beyond the content of his argument - which is a sound argument to me btw.

Are we supposed to pay attention to Obama's words and not his deeds? Do we look at his autobiography for his true opinion or do we look at his actions in office? Do we listen to his political speeches and which ones, to which audiences?

If he leaves office after 8 years of illiberal activity with regard to drugs, does that make him a right-winger? Or an unsuccessful, frustrated left-winger? In his heart of hearts he wants to free the weed, eh?

Sam Haysom writes:


The rum Romanism and rebellion thing was uttered at a James Blaine rally more than 30 years before prohibition started. And prohibition was a decidedly bipartisan affair. That's the only way an amendment gets passed. In the northeast and really only the northeast prohibition was a partisan issue, but that was offset by the fact that prohibition drew some of its strongest support from the solid democratic south.

Mike W writes:

They don't personally know any families that have been destroyed because mom went to prison for violating pot laws. They just remember their college days--and none of their college friends went to prison for hosting pot parties. They don't know any of the 800,000 people arrested for violating pot laws each year.

But really, are those 800,000 people (a link supporting the number would be helpful) going to prison for violating the pot laws just the ordinary folks found with a dime bag or are they the large scale producers and the guy in the article...who are violating federal law?

Isn't the enforcement of the pot laws really aimed at the large scale pot distributors who also distribute hard drugs? And do polls of Americans find support for less enforcement of drug laws concerning cocaine, heroin or prescription pharmaceuticals? I suspect not.

Am I wrong? Am I a pot prosecution denier?

The next generation will be amazed that Obama enforced the medical marijuana laws ...

As far as I know there are no medical marijuana laws...any pot production, distribution or use is a violation of federal law. It shouldn't be, it's dumb but it is. Do we really want Obama or any administration selectively enforcing federal law?

Carl writes:

@Mike W

The 800,000 are a mixed bag. Obviously they're not all large scale producers, nor are they all in for small time possession. The stats are out there...

You're right, the support for legalizing cocaine, heroin et al is pretty slim from polls I have seen. It's really only the libertarians who go all the way.

Do we really want Obama or any administration selectively enforcing federal law?

Yes. Consider the Netherlands, where cannabis remains a controlled substance. Even the coffee shops are technically illegal. The laws are simply not enforced. In Ireland, for example, if a garda (policeman) finds you with an amount for personal use you will not be arrested. He'd probably take it from you and perhaps wag a finger.

NZ writes:

@Lorenzo from Oz:

I'm not making up any history, but you are omitting most of yours. Richard Nixon is to the War on Drugs what Elon Musk is to the electric automobile: a latecomer who did some rebranding and tweaked the "technology" slightly to accommodate a more aggressive strategy, and whose name later became synonymous with the thing itself.

Also note my earlier comment about the Neocons (of which Nixon was sort of one): before their infiltration of the GOP, the war on drugs was solidly a Progressive Democrat cause. The essential Neocon impetus behind support for drug prohibition was not paternalism but the fact that drug prohibition gave the US a perennial excuse to stay militarily involved all over the planet.

I still refer to the war on drugs as a Leftist cause because it has not ceased being one. Key Democrat players in the war on drugs (e.g. Joe Biden) are still in power, while new Leftists (Obama, Holder) are picking up the gauntlet of their ideological ancestors (e.g. the subject of this blog post).

Additionally, we can also look at smoking bans, which have been a primarily Leftist project, and Michelle Obama's war on fast food, which is another branch of the same policy tree. So was alcohol prohibition.

For those arguing that drug prohibition was bi-partisan, can you name 3 prominent pre-Neocon-infiltration Republicans (i.e. before about 1950) who supported the war on drugs?

Just off the top of my head I can name 3 who opposed it (and the context in which they did so):

  1. William Howard Taft (as governor of the Philippines he was happy to leave in place the Spanish system of a legal monopoly on the opium trade)
  2. Justice Joseph McKenna (Republican Supreme Court justice who dissented in Webb v. United States, which ruled that the Harrison Act was constitutional)
  3. August Vollmer (Republican police chief who wrote against police involvement with drug addiction)
Floccina writes:

It is not hard to believe that the people (maybe some in the Obama Administration) who think it is right, good and productive to get children away from their parents and into preschool earlier and earlier in order to inculcate middle class values and skills into them would be against with allowing people to buy pot and other recreational drugs at will from the local pharmacy without a prescription.

(I myself being quite liberal on the matter would allow anyone to buy any drug/meds without prescription with the exception of antibiotics. For antibiotics I would allow only those who can prove that they understand the implication for others of overuse of antibiotics and disply some commitment to acting on that knowledge in the public's behalf. IMO this would rule out many current MDs but let some less credentialed people to prescribe them.)

It is also hard to believe that the somewhat racist texas old right would think that it would worthwhile to arrest and prison so many African Americans and latinos at an expense of about $40,000/year each for crime of selling recreational drugs to other African Americans and latinos.

But politics is weird and the voters are rational ignorant.

Mike W writes:

@Carl "Yes. Consider the Netherlands, where cannabis remains a controlled substance. Even the coffee shops are technically illegal. The laws are simply not enforced."

Really...selective law enforcement as a solution? Doesn't that result in the situation described in the article posted by Professor Sumner?

Duncan, an employee of the collective, received a modest salary for his work and sought legal advice before taking the job to ensure he would comply with state law.

Mike W writes:

[F]amilies that have been destroyed because mom went to prison for violating pot laws. They just remember their college days--and none of their college friends went to prison for hosting pot parties. They don't know any of the 800,000 people arrested for violating pot laws each year.

That 800,000 figure appears to have come from this report: “Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004” ( and, as Professor Sumner wrote, it represents arrests…not incarceration.

The number of moms and pops actually in state and federal prison for violation of marijuana law alone is a much smaller number…and is made up of predominately drug traffickers like the fellow in the article…according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy:

Q. Is the government putting people in prison for marijuana use?

Simply stated, there are very few people in state or Federal prison for marijuana-related crimes. It is useful to look at all drug offenses for context. Among sentenced prisoners under state jurisdiction in 2008, 18% were sentenced for drug offenses. We know from the most recent survey of inmates in state prison that only six percent (6%) of prisoners were for drug possession offenders, and just over four percent (4.4%) were drug offenders with no prior sentences.

In total, one tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of state prisoners were marijuana possession offenders with no prior sentences.

For Federal prisoners, who represent 13 percent of the total prison population, about half (51 percent) had a drug offense as the most serious offense in 2009. And Federal data show that the vast majority (99.8 percent) of Federal prisoners sentenced for drug offenses were incarcerated for drug trafficking.

Kurt Schuler writes:

A nice Whig interpretation of history: each generation is more enlightened than its predecessors. What could possibly go wrong? To quote Austin Powers, "as long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment, I'll be sound as a pound!"

michael pettengill writes:

So, if the conservative/libertarian position on laws that do not have popular support it to ignore the laws and not enforce them, why do we have a Congress?

Wouldn't things be a lot simpler to eliminate Article One and Three of the Constitution and give all the power to the President, renamed "dictator".

Obama is in favor of the laws being enforced no matter how bad, because that increases the odds of the bad laws are changed by the democratic process of compromise among all parties, and

Laws that a party does not like but that is well supported by the public, needs to be enforced by the executive branch.

Conservatives might think that the oil companies should be free to pollute the environment and harm the lives and livelihoods of millions of citizens, or that coal industry should be free to pollute the water and air and force citizens to buy bottled water or pay for medication to remain able to breath.

But if that is the policy, then pass laws with the clear statement "corporations are more important than individuals and thus need to able to harm bystanders - the sacrifice of the millions for the greater good of the hundred million who aren't down wind or river who are well off enough to own stock."

Floccina writes:

Mike W writes:

Federal prisoners sentenced for drug offenses were incarcerated for drug trafficking

Why is that strange term "trafficking/traffickers" used instead of saying people who sell drugs?
I am more sympathetic to sellers who do not use than to users who do not sell. It is very tempting for young men to try to earn a few bucks selling drugs to willing customers. It is the users who sometimes do harm to others when under the influence of drugs.

NZ writes:


You're seeing the world a bit too neatly.

The most desperate and degraded users may steal to support their habit. Many people who do harm to others also use drugs because it fits into their lifestyle or emboldens them to commit their harmful acts more easily. It is less common for otherwise harmless people to use drugs and then become harmful.

Meanwhile, sellers are often also harmful, violent people, for whom selling is as much a way to make a few bucks as a way to gain a certain kind of status. A majority of the violent crime associated with drugs is committed by sellers who are battling over real estate. Many of them are also poor shots and their stray bullets destroy the lives of bystanders.

As I understand it, by the way, the difference between "traffickers" and "dealers" is that traffickers are resellers: they are middle men between producers (the people who manufacture the drugs out of raw materials) and dealers (the people who sell to users), and the main benefit they provide their customers is moving the drugs around.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Sam Hayson: I accept the correction. Which rather supports my original contention, since Southern Democrats were typically conservative Democrats.

NZ: Claiming that Nixon does not count because it is really the Neo Cons who dun nit "of which Nixon was sort of one" is such a torturing of history that it seems pointless to argue. No doubt any conservative I care to mention would be dismissed as "really" some "sort of" Neocon.

Someone should tell Scalia J that drugs are "really" a left cause, because he is certainly all for government action to restrict drugs.

NZ writes:

@Lorenzo from Oz:

Neocons were the driving force behind bringing enthusiastic drug prohibition to the Right. Globalist interventionism was the Neocons' essential draw, but to sell it to conservatives they leaned heavily on a propaganda campaign of scare stories about the domestic impact of drug use. (This was the same tactic Progressives had been using to sell drug prohibition to the general public, which had been quite isolationist up until WWII.)

Today, not all on the Right who support drug prohibition are Neocons, but they have all been duped by this very effective propaganda campaign. However, I haven't met a pro-drug-war non-Neocon conservative who can explain how to prohibit drugs at the Federal level without extensive international allocation of our military and economic resources.

I agree, someone should tell Scalia that drug prohibition is a leftist cause, and explain to him the real history of it. It's very likely he doesn't know it--many people don't. The best book on it I've found (Richard Davenport Hines's "The Pursuit of Oblivion") is very long and rather boring.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top