Scott Sumner  

Affirmative action for drug pushers? (I say yes)

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I'm not a huge fan of affirmative action programs. It's not obvious to me why a Hispanic-American should be favored over an Italian-American when the fire department is hiring workers. But there is one type of affirmative action I can support---helping former drug pushers. Here's the Economist:

[F]or a state seen as a Petri dish for socially liberal policy, California's new regulations are notably progressive. For a start, they allow residents convicted of drug offences that would not be crimes under the new order to have their records expunged. Between November 2016, when Proposition 64 was passed, and September 2017, 4,885 Californians petitioned to reduce or void their convictions. Donnie Anderson, chairman of the California Minority Alliance, which champions people who have been harmed by drug criminalisation, applauds this initiative. "In the past, if you were white and caught with marijuana you would be let off. If you were black or Latino, you were not," he says. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group, found that between 2001 and 2010 African-Americans were more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white Americans, despite similar consumption rates.

California's law also allows those convicted of past marijuana crimes to enter the cannabis industry. Jolene Forman of the Drug Policy Alliance, a pressure group, says this is ideal for two reasons. First, it allows people who have been operating black-market cannabis businesses to become legal. Second, it gives people harmed by the war on drugs the chance to profit in the legal cannabis industry.


Better yet, former drug pushers will be given priority in some cities

In Los Angeles, residents with past marijuana convictions will not only be allowed to buy licences to sell the drug, but will be given priority. Under the city's "social-equity programme", low-income Angelenos who have previous marijuana convictions or who have lived in areas with disproportionately high rates of arrest for marijuana offences will be given preference when licences to open marijuana retail businesses are granted. Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento have introduced similar initiatives.
Given how drug pushers have been persecuted over the years, it's about time we provided some compensation.

As a candidate, Trump promised to leave the marijuana question up to the states. In his confirmation hearings, Jeff Sessions promised not to make marijuana a priority for federal law enforcement. It turns out that all of those promises were meaningless.

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PS. Also check out this Tyler Cowen post.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Mark writes:

Or, maybe not have licensing at all...

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

A teetotaller President is not a good bet for drug liberalisation. I'm shocked. (Irony alert.)

Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, Even better.

Brian writes:

Scott,

From an economics perspective, if the city insists on licenses (and I agree that I'd prefer not), shouldn't those licenses be granted on the basis on who would use them best? Is there a reason to think that former convicted pushers are better at providing legal marijuana? Why not just give out the licenses based on the quality of the application and likelihood of success, rather than one's past record?

John Hall writes:

I'm not sure I can get behind this. Helping people who avoid the law, even an unjust law, I don't know....

Scott Sumner writes:

Brian, I see it as a gesture of compensation for the time these people spent in prison, for an utterly trivial offense.

Robin writes:

I don't really see how you can justify affirmative action for people convicted of minor drug crimes because it's 'compensation', yet dismiss the idea of compensation for black people, who have also been oppressed and often unfairly imprisoned in the recent past (and arguably still).

Mark writes:

An important question here though is, at whose expense is the compensation paid?

If people with a history of drug offenses get preferential access to licenses, it's at the expense of other dispensaries, and their investors and customers (or potential customers who never materialized due to higher prices or lower production thanks to licensing restrictions); they're the ones who ultimately pay the reparations, right? In which case you're punishing people who did nothing wrong in order to pay the reparations, which, in my opinion, is unacceptable.

Reparations are only justifiable if their paid for by expropriating those who rendered the injustice; fining innocent people to correct a wrong may be worse than doing nothing (in my opinion it is).

So who could one fairly make pay compensation to people punished under laws that shouldn't have existed? The cops who arrested them? The judges? The legislators? The last one may be the most morally defensible, but there's still a serious issue with the state punishing someone, even a legislator, for doing something that wasn't illegal when he did it.

Maybe if legislators could be held financially accountable for laws they pass that wrong citizens, there would be better incentives not to pass bad laws. But I could also see the argument that it would risk the US degenerating into a state like ancient Rome, where as soon as a consul left office, his opponents would charge him with vague crimes for the policies he enacted in order to get him exiled, or worse.

Mark writes:

Oh, and Robin,

"I don't really see how you can justify affirmative action for people convicted of minor drug crimes because it's 'compensation', yet dismiss the idea of compensation for black people, who have also been oppressed and often unfairly imprisoned in the recent past (and arguably still)."

There's a big difference: what Scott is proposing would compensate individuals for particular wrong done to them; this, in my view, makes far more sense (though in my previous comment I still question its merit) than compensating an entire race of people for vague, 'collective' wrongs. Plenty of black people aren't oppressed; some even get a net positive out of their race. Wouldn't it make more sense (if one favors reparations, at least) to compensate people individually? For example, instead why not compensate people who have been wrongly imprisoned, and inasmuch as black people have been disproportionately wrongly imprisoned, they will be disproportionately compensated.

Jay writes:

"Brian, I see it as a gesture of compensation for the time these people spent in prison, for an utterly trivial offense."

So we compensate them to the detriment of another application of a person who didn't break the law (however trivial) in the past?

Thaomas writes:

How should we compensate unauthorized immigrants who are deported or threatened with deportation for no other offense but being unauthorized immigrants?

Scott Sumner writes:

Robin, Sorry, where did I dismiss the idea of compensation for black people who have been wrongfully convicted? A sizable percentage of the former drug dealers who would benefit from the program I just endorsed were African Americans who were wrongfully convicted.

Jay, Yes, because serving time in prison is like 100 times worse than not getting a license to sell pot because it's illegal. Isn't that kind of obvious?

Thaomas, How about letting them stay?

Mark writes:

Scott: "Jay, Yes, because serving time in prison is like 100 times worse than not getting a license to sell pot because it's illegal. Isn't that kind of obvious?"

So, the relative severity of a wrong rendered to John by Steve justifies a lesser wrong rendered to Joe to compensate John?

Jay writes:

"Jay, Yes, because serving time in prison is like 100 times worse than not getting a license to sell pot because it's illegal. Isn't that kind of obvious?"

No it really isn't, and it kind of alarms me. Penalizing Peter for not breaking any laws and having nothing to do with Paul serving time does not mean we can just put Paul in front of Peter for no other reason other than we feel bad he had to serve time for a federal law we don't like. This sounds like a really bad precedent to me.

Bob Murphy writes:

Hi Scott,

Not sure if you're still checking these comments, but just in case:

I think the way to help clarify your position with some of your critics above, is to answer this: If fire departments announced that they would implement affirmative action *not* for Hispanic applicants, but for former drug dealers who had served time for nonviolent offenses, would you support that?

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