Why Democrats Support the Drug War Status Quo

Later today, I'll have a post up at MSNBC's Lean Forward blog explaining why the "Choom Gang" revelations from David Maraniss' new biography of Barack Obama didn't seem to make anybody mad (with the exception of libertarians who took the opportunity to make the entirely accurate point that Obama's Justice Department is vigorously prosecuting people for doing pretty much the same thing Obama did as a teenager, and if he had been caught he might have gone to jail and certainly wouldn't have grown up to be president). Briefly, it comes down to a couple of things: Obama had already admitted he smoked pot "frequently," so it wasn't much of a revelation; and around half of American adults have too, meaning they weren't going to be outraged. Furthermore, most of the reporters who would write about the story are probably in the pot-smoking half, making them less likely to treat it as something scandalous. But this raises a question, one posed by Jonathan Bernstein: Why do Democratic politicians overwhelmingly support the status quo on drug policy? Do they actually think it's good policy, or is it just politics?

I have a hard time believing that anyone in either party thinks it's good policy to be locking up hundreds of thousands of people for drug possession, which incurs staggering financial and human cost and has almost no effect on rates of drug use or abuse. You can tell because when they get asked about it, politicians almost never talk in concrete terms about what these policies achieve. Instead, draconian drug laws are justified in terms of "sending the right message," which is what you say when you have no practical evidence to support your position.

Obviously, undoing the complex system of punishments for drug possession, particularly marijuana possession, is not a simple policy question. Would it be better to have a de facto decriminalization, where it's still nominally illegal but nobody gets arrested, or would outright legalization, with a regulated marijuana industry, be preferable? The answers depend on predicting an uncertain future. But what we do know is that most politicians don't even want to talk about it, beyond perhaps eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences and reducing punishments. The reason, of course, is fear, the force that governs so many decisions politicians make. At the moment, there remains a strong incentive to support the status quo, lest you be targeted in your next race as some kind of hippie-lover. The incentives on the other side, on the other hand, are almost nil. When was the last time somebody lost a race for being too tough on drugs? The half of Americans who favor marijuana legalization are not an organized voting bloc that gets together to punish its opponents at the polls.

This is one of a number of areas where liberals don't even bother to expect Democrats to do the right thing (marriage equality was another area, until just recently). And if those Democrats have nothing to fear from the left, there's no reason for them to step out. Maybe that will change eventually. But right now we have a situation in which 16 states and D.C. have passed medical marijuana laws, yet the federal government (led, if you'll recall, by a radical socialist bent on turning America into Sweden) is busy raiding dispensaries that are perfectly legal in the states in which they operate. The next president, who will probably be a Republican even if Obama wins re-election this year, will likely continue that policy. So it may be some time before we have a real debate—the kind with two sides—on this issue.

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