Bill Bratton's Backward Logic on Marijuana

New York City’s Police Commissioner cites violence associated with the black market in pot as a reason against legalizing the drug.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Earlier this week, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton made a very confused statement about the increasingly popular movement to legalize marijuana. “Here in New York City,” he declared, “most of the violence we see, violence around drug trafficking, is involving marijuana. And I have to scratch my head as we see many states wanting to legalize marijuana, and liberalization of policies.”

As Jacob Sullum notes, “Bratton is presenting an argument for legalization as an argument against it … what Bratton views as a head-scratcher—that people would want to legalize a business tied to black-market violence—is actually a no-brainer.” Insofar as the marijuana trade is violent, it is because selling the drug is illegal. Prohibition gives rise to highly profitable conspiracies of criminals who vie for territory, using violence to best rivals who cannot turn to the law to defend themselves.

There may be costs to legalizing marijuana. Some people think that they outweigh the benefits. But there’s no question that legalizing marijuana would shift sale of the drug from criminals who sometimes engage in violence to businesses that almost never would. Legalization is the only effective way to eradicate such violence. How can one of America’s most successful police chiefs fail to understand that?

“I don't think it's a matter of stupidity,” a Reason commenter theorizes, trying to understand the logical fallacy. “It's a moral issue. Drugs are bad, so prohibition is good. Any violence resulting from drug prohibition is caused by the drugs, not prohibition, because drugs are bad. To question the premise that drugs are bad is to question his good intentions as a police chief. To say that the violence is caused by the laws that he enforces is a personal insult against his good intentions. So no, I don't think it is stupidity. It is the hell we live in thanks to that road paved with good intentions.”

That’s as charitable an explanation as any.

Fortunately, a majority of Americans have ceased to believe that fallacy, and several states are poised to ease or end anti-marijuana laws in 2016. It’s about time. Weed prohibition has made America more violent than it would otherwise be for decades. And it is immoral to lock human beings in cages for using marijuana. I have to scratch my head at law-enforcement leaders who want to keep it illegal.