Why It's So Hard to Reform Drug Laws

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Prominent pundits distort the arguments of anti-prohibitionist reformers, as Michael Gerson did to Ron Paul this week

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It's no wonder that reforming our drug laws is so daunting a task. Just look at the shabby treatment critics of current policy get in the opinion pages of The Washington Post. Columnist Michael Gerson argues that Ron Paul's support for ending the War on Drugs should consign him to "marginal status" in the 2012 GOP primary. Gerson is hardly alone in thinking so, but his column is worth noting insofar as it reflects the weakness of the arguments against decriminalization, and the outright misrepresentations drug warriors are permitted when making them.

The most egregious passage in his piece:

The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods -- say, in Washington, D.C. -- has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their 'personal habits.'

De facto decriminalization in Washington, D.C.? Let's peruse the Metropolitan Police Department's arrest report data -- the most recent week available on the website covers April 3 to April 9 of this year. In that seven day period, 196 people were arrested on narcotics charges. So far in 2011, folks arrested for breaking drug laws number 2,874. On Wednesday, police netted their largest drug seizure in more than a decade. A fifth of current D.C. jail inmates are incarcerated on drug charges.

That isn't de facto decriminalization, it's actively fighting the War on Drugs, with whole units of officers arresting and jailing hundreds each month. If the result is in fact a city of drug addicted prostitutes and children playing among needles, prohibition is by definition the policy to blame: It is official policy.

It isn't just that Gerson fails to recognize the policy that has long been in place, or that lots of jurisdictions that vigorously prosecute the War on Drugs have nevertheless had addiction problems that persisted across many decades -- it's the sheer absurdity of blaming Ron Paul of all people for current failures, when he and his libertarian allies played no role in shaping current law, and if given half a chance would do almost everything completely differently. Equally off base is Gerson's account of a drug question given during the first GOP presidential debate.

Here is how he describes Ron Paul's answer:

"How many people here would use heroin if it were legal? I bet nobody would," he said to applause and laughter. Paul was claiming that good people -- people like the Republicans in the room -- would not abuse their freedom, unlike those others who don't deserve our sympathy.

Actually, the claim being made is that heroin's legality or lack thereof plays a negligible role when someone is deciding whether or not to take it. (Presumably because, for users, the non-legal consequences of heroin use are so much more significant than the legal ones.) Thus addiction rates wouldn't go up were the legal prohibition lifted. Who is deserving of our sympathy plays no role in Paul's argument.

Gerson continues to misunderstand or misrepresent the libertarian position here:

Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions -- families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations -- including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.

Of course, Ron Paul is just as favorably disposed to families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods as anyone. And the vast majority of drug reformers believe and insist that our neighborhoods will grow far more orderly once we end the violent black market in street narcotics and criminal justice policies that imprison an unprecedented number of nonviolent offenders, taking them away from their spouses, their children, and the communities where they live.

It is perfectly fine for Gerson to disagree with these conclusions, but the opinion real estate he occupies is far too valuable to squander on someone unable to convey current policy, identify the actors who bear responsibility for it, or understand the actual opinions of his ostensible interlocutors.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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