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January 16, 2014

Sincere marijuana reform question: exactly what are DEA officials "scared" of?

The question in the title of this post, which I am now posting to all the blogs in which I now participate, is my sincere reaction to this new Washington Post article headlined "DEA operations chief decries legalization of marijuana at state level."  Here is the context:

The chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday called the legalization of marijuana at the state level “reckless and irresponsible,” warning that the movement to decriminalize the sale of pot in the United States will have severe consequences.

“It scares us,” James L. Capra said, responding to a question from a senator during a hearing focused on drug cultivation in Afghanistan.  “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”

Capra’s comments marked the DEA’s most public and pointed criticism of the movement toward decriminalization in several states, where local officials see it as an opportunity to generate tax revenue and boost tourism....

Capra said agents have watched the early days of legal marijuana sales in Colorado with dismay.  “There are more dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks,” he said.  “The idea somehow people in our country have that this is somehow good for us as a nation is wrong.  It’s a bad thing.”

Capra said that senior DEA officials have faced uncomfortable questions from law enforcement partners abroad. During a recent global summit on counter-narcotics in Moscow, he said, he and the head of the DEA were at a loss to explain the loosening drug laws. “Almost everyone looked at us and said: Why are you doing this [while] pointing a finger to us as a source state?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for them.”...

Capra said he worries about the long-term consequences of the national mood on marijuana, which law enforcement experts call a gateway to more dangerous drugs. “This is a bad experiment,” he said.  “It’s going to cost us in terms of social costs.”

Let me begin by saying I respect all those who work in the DEA and other law enforcement agencies dealing with illegal drug issues, and I am certain all those who do this work have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But it is for that very reason that I ask this question about exactly what has DEA officials "scared": I sincerely want a much better understanding of what "social costs" of reform are being referenced here so that I can better assess for myself how I think these potential "social costs" of state-level marijuana reform stack up to the existing "social costs" I see due to current pot prohibition laws and norms.

That said, I think I might be able to help DEA officials avoid "being at a loss" to explain loosening drug laws in the US to their international friends in Moscow or elsewhere.  Here is what I suggest DEA officials say: "The United States of American is an exceptional nation that, in President Lincoln's words, was "conceived in Liberty" and its citizens recently have become ever more skeptical about the growth of government's coercive powers and ever more concerned about paying high taxes for government programming perceived to be ineffectual.  Thus, just as the people of America were the first to experiment seriously with a constitutional democracy (which has worked out pretty well), now some of the people of America are eager to experiment seriously with a regime of marijuana regulation rather than blanket prohibition."

This account of why polls show ever greater support for marijuana legalization is my sincere understanding of why so much drug reform activity is going on now in the United States.  The current "Obama era" is defined by a period of relatively tight budgets, relatively low crime, and yet still record-high taxing-and-spending in service to criminal justice programming.  These realities, especially in the wake of the Tea Party movement and other notable libertarian responses to the enormous modern growth of state and federal governments, have more and more Americans thinking we should be open to experimenting with a regime of marijuana legalization and regulation rather than blanket prohibition.

It is quite possible, as the DEA official suggests, that "this is a bad experiment."  But even if it is, the experiment does not "scare" me, in part because I have a hard time fully understanding what potential increased social costs should make me or others truly "scared."  More importantly, I have enormous confidence that, if the social costs of marijuana reform prove to be significant, the American people will realize pot reform is "a bad experiment" and will again change its laws accordingly. Indeed, this is precisely the experiences we have seen with our legal experiments with other drugs throughout American history:

  • roughly 100 years ago, we experimented with national alcohol Prohibition, but thereafter discovered this was bad experiment due to a variety of social costs, and then went back to a regulatory regime for this drug, and have in more recent times kept tightening our regulatory schemes (e.g., raising the drinking age from 18 to 21), as drunk driving and other tangible social costs of alcohol misuse have become ever more evident;

  • roughly 50 years ago, we experimented with nearly everyone have easy access to, and smoking, tobacco nearly everywhere, but thereafter discovered this was bad experiment due mostly to health costs, and then have been on a steady path toward ever tighter regulation and localized prohibition (e.g., The Ohio State University just became a tobacco-free campus), as lung cancer and other health costs of tobacco use have become ever more evident.

I emphasize these historic examples of American drug experimentation because it is certainly possible to lament the harms produced along the way or the enduring "social costs" of having tobacco and/or alcohol still legal.  But it is also possible to conclude, as I do, that what makes America both great and special — dare I say exceptional — is that we persistently maintained our fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law throughout these experiments.  Consequently, this modern era's new round of American drug experimentation has me excited and intrigued to watch unfold the next chapter of the American experience, and I am not "scared" by the marijuana reform movement because they it strikes me as a further vindication of our people's fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law.

But maybe I am just way too high on the idea of American exceptionalism to have a sensible and sober understanding off all the potential harms and "social costs" that are apparently scaring DEA officials. And, as I said above, I readily acknowledge that all those who work on the front lines of the drug war have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But, again, that it why the question in the title of this post is sincere: I genuinely and really want to have a much better understanding of what has DEA officials "scared" so that I can sensibly temper my excitement and optimism about modern marijuana reforms.

I fear that responses to this post could become snarky or ad hominem real quickly, but I hope all readers will tap into the spirit of my inquiry and really try to help me understand just what potential social costs of modern marijuana reform could lead those in the know to be "scared" as the quote above suggests. And I am posting this query in all five blogs I work on these days because I am eager to get wide input and as many diverse insights on this question as possible.

January 16, 2014 at 09:39 AM | Permalink

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Bill, we await your reply.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Jan 16, 2014 10:56:50 AM

Interesting and thoughtful post. As somebody who has been "on the front lines," I am scared of the legalization movement. My fear comes from having read dozens and dozens of PSRs where a defendant with a lengthy criminal history (mostly violent) states that his life of crime began at a young age (say 14 years old) when he started experimenting with marijuana. By the age of 18, the defendant had dropped out of school, joined a gang, started using and selling meth/crack/powder/heroin/oxy/bath salts, which led to stealing from grandma, which progressed to armed robberies, which progressed to shooting at the police, which led to a well-justified life sentence. When I handled those types of cases, I often asked myself "what would have happened if the defendant never started using marijuana at age 14?" Granted, I don't know that the marijuana use led to any of the future criminal behavior; however, I saw the pattern enough to seriously wonder whether the defendant's entire life might have turned out differently if he never started using marijuana. I know that there are a lot of good, productive citizens who recreationally use marijuana and have never committed another crime in their lives. But, you asked what there was to be afraid of---I am afraid that if we legalize marijuana, reduce the stigma, and eliminate the risk of a criminal conviction, we will see more young people using it, which I am fearful could increase the number of people who find themselves in the situation I described above. I hope we can all agree that would be bad for society.

Before the liberals jump all over me, I want to say that I hope they are right. I hope the experiments in Colorado and elsewhere work, I hope crime is reduced, I hope addiction doesn't skyrocket, I hope the cartels lose power, and I hope we can save money. But, I am afraid of what will happen if the experiment goes awry. I am afraid of more people ruining their lives with drug addiction, I am scared of more young people jumping from marijuana to meth/heroin/crack/oxy in search of the next big high...a search that will lead to one of two places: the grave or prison. I saw it everyday. It is something to be scared of. I pray it doesn't happen.

Posted by: Not really | Jan 16, 2014 11:04:18 AM

I too hope the experiment succeeds. However, because dope makes us feel so mellow, heightens the sexual experience, and has relatively few side effects, my concern is that we become a nation of lous-eaters. Antiquity provides a good example:


"In the Odyssey IX, Odysseus tells how adverse north winds blew him and his men off course as they were rounding Cape Malea, the southernmost tip of the Peloponnesus, headed westwards for Ithaca:

"I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2014 12:00:15 PM

Quoting the Odyssey, anon makes a good point. I too hope the experiment succeeds. But as Homernoted (three thousand years ago??), the Lotus was "so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return." Is this to be our children? Is this to be us?

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jan 16, 2014 12:05:59 PM

“It scares us,” James L. Capra said, responding to a question from a senator during a hearing focused on drug cultivation in Afghanistan. “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”

Is there any data to support Capra's answer? Has decriminalization failed in the Netherlands or Portugal to name a few? How so? More importantly, how does Capra define failure?

Posted by: ? | Jan 16, 2014 12:20:14 PM

Little problem. DEA loses budget after legalization.

Did anyone hear the phrase, easy as taking candy from a baby? Well, it is not easy,taking candy from a baby. Try taking $billions from armed agents, eating donuts and swilling coffee for years before arresting any bad guys.

Anyone supporting prohibition must support prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, both 10 times more addictive, and 10,000 more lethal.

Bill makes the counter argument that legalization people must support legalizing cocaine, heroin, etc.

My solution is to go along with Bill's argument, leaving everyone alone until they do damage. Have an adult pleasure license revoked after the accumulation of points counting damage. Draconian penalties apply to licensees and suppliers to unlicensed people. Cigarettes and alcohol would requiree licensure as well.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 16, 2014 1:45:04 PM

I have also strongly advocated population based studies in the states legalizing comparing to similar states prohibiting with comprehensive not selected numbers. So ER visits for reactions to marijuana are propaganda unless put in the context of fewer suicides or murders from legalization.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 16, 2014 2:00:54 PM

S.C. writes "Bill makes the counter argument that legalization people must support legalizing cocaine, heroin, etc. "

But WHY must folks who support legalization of the one support legalization of the others?

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jan 16, 2014 2:03:59 PM

No snark intended, but, unlike the host, I have no respect for the DEA, its agents, and other proponents of the drug war. Their whole position is immoral. They seek to imprison others for engaging in voluntary activities that are not inherently harmful.

Posted by: V for Vendetta | Jan 16, 2014 4:19:55 PM

Most of those advocating for the continued war on drugs are financially dependent on it. They are government workers in law enforcement, prisons, prosecutors etc.

Some in the private sector are also supported by government contracts. Treatment facilities, private prisons and private security groups all need the war on drugs for their business, also supported by government contracts.

Smaller less intrusive governments requires an end to this social experiment.

Lotus is a plant that is still available and used in other countries. The war on drugs has been an American initiative which we have encouraged the world to adopt - many countries are now questioning the widom of prohibition. Hypocracy abounds in this debate. Since alcohol is not an illegal substance, the social harm of this drug does not become part of the calculation.

What we're seeing now is that the bottom line of the drug war is too high. Freedom and justice do matter to voters. This is the reason for the rising % of the population supporting marijuana legalization.

Posted by: beth | Jan 16, 2014 5:03:47 PM

Michael: I had criticized Bill's position as intellectually impossible, to oppose the legalization of a substance, while not strenuously advocating the prohibition of substances that are 10 times more addictive, and 10,000 times more lethal. So, 50 people die from marijuana, in car crashes, none directly, and 500,000 die from tobacco and alcohol. Half the suicides are legally drunk, as are half the murder victims, and half the murderers. Harsh, cruel outcomes. I favor the prohibition of both, with Draconian penalties, such the execution of 10,000 dealers, and the lashing of users. However, there is zero public support for prohibition, and the chance of persuading the public otherwise is nil.

For consistency, Bill replied, I must support the legalization of cocaine and heroin. I am not intellectually ready to do so, so Bill has found my intellectual inconsistency. I will admit it publicly.

To mitigate the harm of the current prohibition of marijuana, I am willing to swallow the consistency and allow heroin and cocaine, even to get high, not just for legitimate medical reason. I have proposed the buffer of the Adult Pleasure License, that would stop addicts from damaging themselves and others.

The cost of the War on Drugs would be returned to the tax payer. The premature deaths of smokers is to our economic advantage, where there are no retirement and lingering dementia care costs. The high profits and federal price supports could continue in high taxation, and would be diverted from the coffers of the Taliban and the Drug Cartels, taking down our friend, the Mexican government.

Given the momentous nature of the economics, health, and criminal law implications, each step should be done right, and validated at several sizes of jurisdictions. Start with a county, validate the benefits and tolerable side effects, go to a state, a region, then national. Prove the benefits outweigh the risks at every level. Casualties are OK if the total is positive.

We have awe inspiring, breath taking levels of casualties now, so the present situation is the most intolerable of all. Mass imprisonment, mass health costs, mass killings of fellow American, over 20,000,000, in the fifty years since the Surgeon General's report on smoking. The lethal effect of smoking was known to the medical community for over 80 years. Mass loss of revenue, mass cost of prison, mass destruction of the futures of black males. Unbearable.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 16, 2014 7:37:01 PM

I have made the case against legalization many times, and need not do so again, particularly in light of many notable and well-respected sources having recently come around to my side, to wit, the American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/PolicyFinder/policyfiles/HnE/H-95.998.HTM); conservative David Brooks (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/03/opinion/brooks-weed-been-there-done-that.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1&); liberal Ruth Marcus (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ruth-marcus-the-perils-of-legalized-pot/2014/01/02/068cee6e-73e9-11e3-8b3f-b1666705ca3b_story.html); and political theorist and former ONDCP official Peter Wehner (http://www.eppc.org/publications/gop-should-stand-firm-against-drug-legalization/).

The notion that one must be a statist, a troglodyte, a coward, a moron, or the Church Lady to oppose legalizing this stuff is just absurd.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 16, 2014 8:32:00 PM

I think what really scares Agent Capra is the realization that perhaps his life's work not only has been wasted, but was actually counterproductive. His fight against marijuana has resulted in more harm than good. I suspect he's also scared that people are starting to lose respect for what he does. Finally, he fears the fact that people are no longer scared of marijuana, because now they're starting to learn about it from somewhere other than the government propaganda machine.

I'm also really curious to know what he's talking about when he says, “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.” Is he talking about Portugal, where legalization not only didn't "fail", whatever that means, but actually corresponded with lower rates of drug use? Or the Netherlands, where marijuana use has been tolerated for decades, and in spite of this generally ranks as one of the countries with the highest quality of life in the world? Or is he talking about Uruguay, which just legalized marijuana the other day and hasn't had time to show any meaningful results from it? Perhaps he's talking about the states that have legalized medical marijuana, and which somehow haven't devolved into crime-ridden, disease infested hellholes (unless they were already that way when they legalized medical marijuana)? Then again, maybe he's talking about countries with different approaches to drugs in general, such as Switzerland, whose heroin-assisted treatment programs have reduced the incidence of overdose, improved health, and allowed addicts to live crime-free lives?

I'd really like to know about these places that have tried "time and time again" to legalize marijuana with disastrous results. But my guess is he's just making it up.

Posted by: C.E. | Jan 17, 2014 12:55:09 AM

C.E.

"I think what really scares Agent Capra is the realization that perhaps his life's work not only has been wasted, but was actually counterproductive. His fight against marijuana has resulted in more harm than good. I suspect he's also scared that people are starting to lose respect for what he does. Finally, he fears the fact that people are no longer scared of marijuana, because now they're starting to learn about it from somewhere other than the government propaganda machine."

"I'd really like to know about these places that have tried "time and time again" to legalize marijuana with disastrous results. But my guess is he's just making it up."

Bingo! Especially on the government propaganda machine - our children's indoctrinator's, er, I mean educators.

Posted by: albeed | Jan 17, 2014 9:01:07 AM

What the DEA is afraid of is that they are only capable of the prosecution of the low, lower, and lowest hanging fruit: domestic distribution gangs. While this is necessary, it only deals with one side of the problem and is destined to fail.

Drugs flow north, and dollars flow south. Nothing meaningful is done to prosecute the members of financial services industry that assist in sending the dollars south. The non-prosecution agreements with Wachovia in 2010 and HSBC in 2012 are perfect examples.

The shareholders, who are completely innocent, collectively pay the fines and forfeitures, not the executives/officers who made it happen. Some careers might be ended, but to my knowledge no executive/officer has ever been criminally prosecuted.

Without any criminal prosecutions of the individuals responsible for sending the dollars south, the Drug War will be lost, but the DEA will to be left alone to dig holes and then fill them back up.

Posted by: Fred | Jan 17, 2014 10:59:19 AM

I have made the case against legalization many times, and need not do so again, particularly in light of many notable and well-respected sources having recently come around to my side

Bills side Vs 2 States and counting

Posted by: Anon | Jan 17, 2014 11:28:32 AM

Well, you have to look at your sources. The AMA is not and never has been a scientific research organization. It is now a very small trade association. Less than one fifth of all physicians belong to it and the number is falling. Those who do belong are hoping for support for their particular field of practice. It would be interesting to see what specialities have the highest % of membership.

David Brooks is who he is, a superb individual who has generous and kind instincts. He sees the world from his own plateau that for some may seem a bit privileged and remote. I like him, but don't look to him for definitive cultural trends.

Ruth Marcus proves - as well as Brooks - that youthful marijuana use does not ruin ones life. She seems to be basing her opinion on what she believes to be science. The latest and most evidence based study done at Harvard on adolescent cannabis use and schizophrenia shows that the correlation between adolescent marijuana use and schizophrenia is related to a family history of schizophrenia, not marijuana use. There are many studies done by adolescent treatment centers and those who own them that show a correlation but they seem to be financially movitated, not evidence based.

Peter Wehner from the ONDCP has a background that speaks for itself.

Posted by: beth | Jan 17, 2014 2:50:31 PM

anon --

"Bills side Vs 2 States and counting"

anon's side vs. 48 states, including Oregon and California, which rejected recreational pot by more votes than Washington and Oregon approved it.

This is not mentioning the feds, which lack of mention is deliberate, since I don't know from day to day what Eric Holder will feel like doing, and still less do I know who his successor will be and what HE'LL feel like doing.

But at least I know that the business mandate is here to sta.............what?.............it's been delayed until................when? But, like, isn't there a statute about that??? Oh, yeah, now I remember. Statutes are only for when you feel like it.

Gads, it's even enough to make you nostalgic for the rule of law.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 17, 2014 4:30:53 PM

Holy cow, there's a video of this guy's testimony. He's completely unhinged and even more irrational than the transcript of his testimony suggests. Maybe he should take some leave and get counseling.

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/01/16/dea-official-freaks-out-at-senate-hearing-reckless-marijuana-legalization-scares-us/

Posted by: C.E. | Jan 18, 2014 12:43:53 AM

I love it when people without the very ordinary courage needed to sign their own names decide that others -- people who testify publicly, under oath and on camera -- are "afraid" of this, that and the other thing.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 18, 2014 3:14:38 AM

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