Paternalism and Pot Policy

Andrew Sullivan points to arguments by Rod Dreher and David Frum that cannabis legalization would benefit mostly middle-class moderate users at the expense of mostly poor heavy users.

Sullivan is horrified by the frank paternalism involved, but horror isn’t a criticism, and he’s wrong to attribute to Frum and Dreher the notion that “all American adults are basically children that we have to protect from their own choices.” What Frum and Dreher are saying is that some Americans – many of them minors – are indeed in need of protection from their own bad choices. (Dreher is especially clear-minded in pointing out that the need for paternalistic protection varies not just from person to person but from choice to choice: lots of people are capable of managing their diets but not their retirement financial planning. I, for example, want paternalistic protection against being sold adulterated drugs or contaminated food.) There’s no logical flaw in the idea that more-liberal policies in a variety of domains might serve the interests of those better-placed to make good choices at the expense of those worse-placed.

That said, it seems to me that Frum and Dreher do only half of the analysis. They consider the consumer side of the drug market (even then, ignoring the costs inflicted, mostly on poor folks, by 800,000 possession arrests per year), but not the producer side.

Legalizing marijuana would make it easier for people to smoke pot. Some of those people would benefit from having that option; others would make choices they would come to regret. On average, the more socially advantaged will make better choices, and be better positioned to recover from their bad choices, than the less socially advantaged. To that extent, legalization favors the privileged over the less-privileged.

But keeping marijuana illegal creates a different sort of temptation, by expanding the range of illegal money-making options. Compared to theft, commercial sex work, or hard-drug dealing, pot-dealing is less edgy and less risky. Some of the people who take it up (not very many, in my view) may be better off than they would have been doing legal work; others will be better off than they would have been doing alternative illegal work. But, inevitably, some people will yield to the temptation for a quick buck and wreck their lives in doing so. And like those who yield to the temptation to smoke too much pot, they’re likely to come from the bottom half of the income/status distribution, not the top half. Just how damaging your youthful pot-dealing arrest will turn out to be could depend very strongly on how good a lawyer your parents can find for you.

On balance, are poor neighborhoods made better off by maintaining cannabis prohibition? Maybe so. But opponents of legalization haven’t made that case in anything like adequate detail.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.