A Different World

Hendrick Hertzberg's latest "talk of the town" item opens with a hilarious meditation on the changing nature of presidential drug disclosures as witnesses by a New York Times article that appeared to have been accusing Obama of having done less drugs back in the day than his autobiography implied. Then, the pivot:

Voters, rightly, don’t much seem to care. But there is a glaring discontinuity between the lived experience of Americans and the drug policies of their governments. Nearly a hundred million of us—forty per cent of the adult population, including pillars of the nation’s political, financial, academic, and media élites—have smoked (and, therefore, possessed) marijuana at some point, thereby committing an offense that, with a bit of bad luck, could have resulted in humiliation, the loss of benefits such as college loans and scholarships, or worse. More than forty thousand people are in jail for marijuana offenses, and some seven hundred thousand are arrested annually merely for possession. Meanwhile, the percentage of high-school seniors who have used pot has remained steady, between forty and fifty per cent.

That's what always seems to me to go missing in these "politicians behaving badly" stories. Do I think that having smoked pot should disqualify a person from being a U.S. Senator? Of course not. But a minority of people who smoke pot in this country do wind up facing rather severe penalties for having done so. The question for formerly drug using politicians who (rightly) expect to be forgiven is how they can continue to support a legal regime that has these consequences.

[The official Yglesias line on the issue is that there's good reason to keep adequate legal restrictions on marijuana in place so as to prevent the emergence of large marijuana firms with lobbying arms and sophisticated marketing and advertising arms. This, obviously, would still leave the door open for substantial liberalization of policy from its current status quo.]