Caplis and the Marijuana Debate

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Caplis and the Marijuana Debate

by Ari Armstrong, February 12, 2006

I happened to tune in to 106.7 FM while driving on February 9, and "Uncle Nasty" (Gregg Stone) was talking about the proposed state-wide marijuana initiative. Dan Caplis from KHOW was on Stone's program arguing against the proposal. Stone also had Mason Tvert and Bob Melamede (a biologist from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) on the line to defend the measure.

Caplis made some peculiar claims.

Caplis claimed that "legalizing" marijuana would have no "upside," though it would lead to more people using the dangerous drug. So I'll list the upsides.

But first some preliminary notes. Generally I stay away from the term "legalization" because of its ambiguity. In some contexts, legalization means to legally permit something but subject it to strict licensing requirements and other controls. For example, if the government set up marijuana shops to sell small quantities to adults, that would count as "legalization," but that's not what we're talking about here (nor is it something I advocate). The proposed initiative would remove criminal penalties for adults (over 21) who possess an ounce or less of marijuana. So, in the context of the initiative, "legalization" and "decriminalization" refer only to that change in the law.

Would more people use marijuana if the initiative passed? Probably. However, the change would be undramatic. Almost all people who want to use marijuana today already do so, and the law doesn't stop them. Marijuana is readily available despite the law. (In Colorado, it should be noted, penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug are relatively light.) Also, of all the people who smoke marijuana, most do so only occasionally, in a way that poses no serious risk to themselves or others. In some cases, people would switch to marijuana from some other drug, such as alcohol, so in those cases the net change arguably would be no worse and possibly better.

Caplis said that he's interested in the issue as a father -- he believes more children would smoke marijuana if the initiative were passed. However, that doesn't follow at all. Current laws are not preventing minors who want to use marijuana from doing so. (The 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 7.6 percent of people aged 12 to 17 used marijuana in the previous month, while 16.1 percent of adults aged 18 to 25 used it. The figure is 6.1 percent for the general population.)

More importantly, if the resources of the police and courts were no longer wasted harassing peaceable adults, those resources could be used to enforce laws that protect children.

So Caplis's "save the children" cry is shrill but phony. The Colorado initiative would allow possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, only for adults ages 21 and over. There are all sorts of things that adults can and should be allowed to do but that children cannot legally do. These include agreeing to have sex, buying guns, obtaining a concealed carry permit, buying and drinking alcohol, buying and using cigarettes, buying pornography, and visiting strip clubs. If Caplis were to sustain his argument that behaviors that are dangerous for children should be banned for adults, he would advocate totalitarianism.

Caplis's other specious argument is that the initiative would somehow lead to more people driving while under the influence. But that would still be illegal. Moreover, fewer police resources would be wasted harassing peaceable adults who aren't driving, leaving more resources to enforce laws against driving while under the influence of marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs. According to Caplis's argument, we should also ban alcohol because some people drive drunk.

And Caplis is a hard-core prohibitionist. He stated outright that tobacco should be prohibited. While he did not say that alcohol should be prohibited (as far as I heard; I was not able to listen to the entire segment), his arguments lead to that conclusion.

What I found most stunning is Caplis's argument that hypocrisy is good. We should be hypocrites, he said, in keeping marijuana illegal even as alcohol is legal. His unprincipled approach can lead only to legal chaos. However, the doctrine of equal legal protection forbids the hypocrisy that Caplis urges. Take two people, one of whom is drinking a beer in his living room and one of whom is eating a marijuana brownie. The guy who produced the beer runs for U.S. Senate or mayor (though apparently not for governor), and the guy with the beer is left alone, while the guy eating the brownie is subject to criminal penalties. Legal "hypocrisy" is the very antithesis of a legal system of a free society.

Caplis also made the absurd claim that Tvert has a financial interest in the state-wide initiative, and that's why he's pushing it. I don't know whether Tvert has made or will make any income for advocating marijuana reform, but that's totally irrelevant. Does Dan Caplis make any money advocating ideas? It is totally obvious that Tvert is pushing for reform because he believes it is right. If Caplis is going to start throwing around baseless charges of financial motivation, he might glance at the salaries of people like John Suthers and John Walters -- men who are paid to enforce drug prohibition. Whatever Tvert might make, Walters makes many times that amount to push national drug-war propaganda. (Of course, I believe that Suthers and Walters actually believe drug prohibition is a good idea.)

Caplis suggested that the funding for the initiative is suspect. Similarly, according to the February 9 Rocky Mountain News, Walters "blamed billionaire Democratic financier George Soros for pushing that piece of legislation [in Denver], as well as a statewide ballot measure that would seek to lift similar restrictions throughout Colorado." Tvert answered, "We spent less than $30,000 in the entire Denver campaign... There is absolutely no money from George Soros. In fact, it's money from concerned people around Colorado and the rest of the country who are fed up with this war against marijuana." But that's totally irrelevant. The people who contribute to the initiative, whoever they are, have absolutely no financial interest in seeing the initiative pass. They donate their money because they think reform is a good idea.

For Caplis to insinuate that the Colorado reforms are somehow tainted financially, and to simultaneously totally ignore the billions of dollars forcibly transfered every year to drug warriors, is so pathetic that I must doubt Caplis's intellectual honesty on this score.

The main issue, though, is that Caplis claims that the initiative would impose harms but would have no "upside." So here's a partial list of the benefits.

* The initiative would reduce the amount of rights-violating behavior by government agents. This is far and away the most important "upside." Subjecting peaceable adults to criminal penalties for what they choose to put into their bodies is morally wrong. By enforcing marijuana prohibition, government agents are hurting others, violating their rights, and abusing the power of government.

* The initiative would result in fewer wasted resources. According to Jeffrey Miron's estimate, repealing prohibition of marijuana would save over $80 million per year in Colorado. That's money that could be spent to enforce legitimate laws or returned to taxpayers.

* The reform would make the law more reasonable, less arbitrary, and therefore more widely respected. This may not matter to self-described hypocrites such as Caplis, but it does matter to those who care about achieving a just society.

* Marijuana prohibition is racist in origins, and reforming it would lessen the disproportionate harms to minorities.

* * *

Caplis's statements are for the most part unoriginal, but they are typical. Reviewing some of the comments of others is also worthwhile.

John Suthers said of Tvert's group, "Their message is going to be that somehow smoking pot is less of a danger than alcohol abuse so we ought to support it as an alternative... That's not the message we should send to our children" (quoted in Dave Curtin's February 9 article in The Denver Post).

Suthers's statement is disingenuous for two reasons, as I have argued. First, repealing criminal penalties for peaceable behavior by adults is not the equivalent of the government "supporting" the behavior. There are no criminal penalties for having unprotected sex, smoking cigarettes at home, or eating a dozen cheeseburgers per day, yet the government does not "support" those self-destructive behaviors. Second, as Suthers knows full well, the initiative applies only to adults 21 years of age and older, not to "children."

However, John Suthers is sending his own message to children, that it is okay with him that the government and its agents routinely and violently violate the individual rights of Colorado citizens.

Yet Suthers is not the only critic of Tvert's message about the relative dangers of alcohol.

David Harsanyi writes for the February 9 Denver Post, "Unfortunately, [Bill Owens and other critics of reform will] be up against SAFER's mastermind, Mason Tvert -- who held his own news conference. His message: Marijuana is safer than beer. Frankly, the drug czar should just hire Tvert. Though they may disagree about marijuana, Tvert's bone-chilling nonsense in regards to alcohol's evils closely resembles Carrie Nation. It would be a perfect fit. But just because Tvert's arguments are flawed doesn't mean czars are any less dangerous."

And Harsanyi has a point. As I've often argued, it is useful to compare the relative harms of the two drugs. In fact, the legal drug alcohol is associated with a lot more disease and crime than is the illegal drug marijuana. Thus, there's no reason to keep one legal and the other illegal. I want to repeal prohibition across the board. People like Suthers, Owens, and Caplis want discriminatory prohibition, which means they want to violate the rights of some people, but not others, for no good reason.

But Tvert's message is flawed for two reasons. First, just because marijuana might be less dangerous than alcohol doesn't mean that people should use it. Second, for the large majority of users, alcohol is not dangerous at all, as Harsanyi suggests. (Moderate consumption of alcohol has been proven to improve health.)

It is foolish to base public policy on how the worst, dumbest people in society behave. For example, we don't ban guns because some people handle them irresponsibly. We don't ban swimming pools because they are roughly a hundred times more dangerous to children than are guns (according to Freakonomics.) We don't ban cars or driving because of road rage. We don't ban sex (or even extra-marital sex) because some people have sex irresponsibly. Similarly, we don't outlaw alcohol because some people abuse it and get themselves addicted to it. Likewise, we should not ban marijuana for adults because a small percent of users use it in dangerous or destructive ways. Most users of alcohol and marijuana use the drugs in moderation.

Having heard Tvert offer his rationale for his argument, I can attest that his motives in picking his argument are suspect. He explained that the argument, "marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol," is not the best-polled reason people accept for rolling back marijuana prohibition. However, roughly a third of people believe that argument, and, of that group, almost all of them want to treat marijuana similarly to alcohol under the law. So, Tvert reasoned, a reasonable strategy is to build on the group that "thinks marijuana is less harmful."

But Tvert's approach has some problems. First, the argument about marijuana versus alcohol is valid only in a particular context, and, when removed from that context, it becomes an easy target for criticism. Second, Tvert's main argument ignores the central issue, which is that people have a right to control their own bodies. Third, as Harsanyi notes, Tvert tends to overblow the harms of alcohol. Fourth, Tvert is reifying the poll results. Just because, of those polled, those who believe alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana also believe the prohibition of marijuana should be rolled back, doesn't mean that increasing the first category will inexorably increase the second. Another long-term possibility is that prohibitionists will successfully argue that, because alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, it should be banned, too. Also, the poll results that happen to link two attitudes say nothing about the relationship between or relative importance of the attitudes.

In general, the proper approach is to make the arguments that are correct, not the arguments that poll the best. While there is some room for massaging a message according to what resonates with people, the true reformer seeks to drive public opinion, not be guided by it. For example, those who wanted to ban slavery didn't argue primarily that blacks are no more violent than whites; they argued that blacks have individual rights that the government and citizens should respect and protect. In the long run, only arguing from essentials will yield agreeable results. The lesser arguments are important, but only within the proper framework.

* * *

I wasn't very happy with Curtin's article. Following is my critique of it:

Dear Mr. Curtin,

Your article is ridiculously biased. You quote Walters's claims that marijuana now is different from marijuana of the past and that "marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs and addiction." In neither case do you quote a study or expert to counter these claims. (You quote Tvert only with respect to the issue of addictiveness.) Instead, you quote a kid in treatment regarding the second claim. (Only one of the three quotes by teens endorses the "gateway" theory.)

It is inappropriate of you to use only this anecdotal account for three reasons. First, the source is biased. It's all too convenient for him to blame his self-destructive behavior on something outside his control. Second, the source merely makes an assertion -- that marijuana "led to cocaine and Ecstasy" -- without offering any reason why one "led" to the other. (Perhaps you've heard the Latin phrase that describes a fallacy: post hoc, ergo propter hoc.) Third, a single anecdote does not constitute proof. For example, the fact that Bill Ritter used marijuana and now is the leading Democratic candidate for governor does not disprove the "gateway" theory, any more than your source proves it. [I'll add a fourth reason: people in treatment, especially minors, can be coached by their counselors to parrot politically-correct drug policy and propaganda.]

As a reporter, it is your job to be critical of the claims made by politicians and bureaucrats (or at least to include a critical response), not serve as the propaganda arm of the office of the "Drug Czar." (I realize it is possible that an editor removed some of your content, in which case at least some of the blame might need to be shifted to that editor.)

Sincerely,
Ari Armstrong

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com