“All institutions are prone to corruption and to the vices of their members.”
“But eradicating corruption is not enough to sustain a country.”
One might mention the conspicuous way in which a Russian-born, Georgian statesman could finish West’s sentence like that, such as the state-appointed censor, the enterprising owner, the salesman who covets either favorable publicity or at the very least something devoid of unfavorable publicity, and so on. West, whose unfeigned citation graces the top of this page, must have also known that corruption is entirely dependent on the prevailing values of the times.
Monsignor Blaise Meredith, Morris West’s Holy Inquisitor in his 1959 novel The Devil’s Advocate, capitulates the most important task of his life, which is to try and uncover unpalatable evidence against Giacomo Nerone, a military deserter who may have earned beautification through martyrdom. Like Meredith at the onset of his inquisition, I hesitate before you all with this concomitant write up. I’m only bringing this up because the level of frightening disregard to be found on both sides of the argument is still far in excess than any objective, or even impartial, analysis might dare to wish.
I really had two types of people in mind while writing this, with the third uncaring type intentionally overlooked. I could clearly picture the hard conservatives bracing their sensibilities for another disregard of what they consider moral, with the addition of those closet marijuana activists sharpening their pencils, eager to exploit yet another self-imposed taboo. Among my eclectic spectrum of acquaintances, which range from police commanders to fist-pumping malcontents, no other topic is more heatedly debated than the decriminalization of marijuana. Throughout the rest of this article I will run on the assumption that the reader has already done a fair amount of research on the subject, particularly in the realm of what empirical, demonstrable science has said about it. I have personally reached a sort of analytical breaking-point trying to reason around how weird this debate has become.
Before you knee-jerk away from me, really try to think about it: decriminalization of marijuana is an absolutely horrible, negligent and downright stupid idea. Not because marijuana is dangerous. Not because it doesn’t possess all of the irrefutable, peer-reviewed miracle-properties that nearly every single physician on the planet recognizes. Not because our collective-unconscious has its moral compass twisted away from habitual marijuana use. Not because there isn’t an unremitting, absurd and shameful self-evidentiary contradiction within its prohibition – especially when far worse pharmaceutical-narcotics, tobacco and alcohol are legal and open for business – but because we just don’t have a value system in place that would release marijuana from the clutches of industry, exploitation and mass victimization. Many of you will no doubt wonder why that is a bad thing. Mark my words and be warned: turning marijuana into a legitimate industry would ruin everything that is good about marijuana – clearly defined legislation not excluded. If we are going to have a polite, humble, objective and critical discussion about decriminalization, we must consider crime, murder, the liberty of choice and the utilitarian perspective.
Critics of criminalized marijuana advert to the great Noble Experiment of the early twentieth century and its infamous Volstead Act. Gangsters like Bill Dwyer, Al Capone, John Duffy and Samuel Weiss ruthlessly captured the era’s alcohol market, such as the urban street-gangs of today have taken up this most ancient tradition. Like the burl of that particular flavor of organized-crime during the depression, criminal syndicates today, if you’ll forgive the pun, soberly understand who controls the lines of drug distribution in their designated areas; they have naturally chalked murder into the overall risk-management of doing business. When you study the minutia therein, the enterprise of prohibition today is a bit different.
In places like Washington and Minnesota, the ambiguous territories of drug-trafficking are in a state of complete disorganization. While I was working at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, I had the opportunity to interview a rather colorful character named Minister King God (K.G. for short) who is a reformed former Crips head-of-state from Chicago. These days, K.G. patrols some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Midwest, street-evangelizing with a megaphone his message of peace to the lost sons and daughters of urban culture. He informed me that Minnesota was one of the most dangerous states in the country, mainly because of the rugose nature of its untapped demographics.
According to K.G., the most insidious elements of Chicago’s gangland often seek sanctuary in the suburbs of Minnesota when things get too hot at home. When I tried to dig a bit deeper into why Minnesota was the preferred line of retreat, as opposed to any of Illinois’s bordering states, K.G. mentioned that Minnesota was far enough for interested parties to stop looking, but not far enough to be inconvenient. He left the paradox at that.
What happens with these untapped drug-markets in places like Minnesota and Washington, where there are not well established territories of distribution, with this very lucrative trade, is that people get butchered in the street for the right to sell these illegal substances. At the same time, interested parties are seemingly cornered by the law into buying under the most perilous conditions. Bullets are fired, and too often innocent people get caught in the middle.
Proponents of decriminalization tend to believe that it would be entirely better for society if the drug-trade were taken out of the hands of criminal-syndicates, and placed into the hands of respectable businesses. Enterprising variables would make their money, self-described Ents (a term I picked up from Reddit) would get their weed, politicians would have their organizations to rabble-rouse against during election time, and murder-rates would fall to sub-horrific levels. If unnecessary death were the only standard by which we measured marijuana prohibition, the numbers would tell us that decriminalizing it would be a very bad idea, and I will explain why.
On the surface it may seem that I am toeing the line of cognitive dissonance, and that this topic is an immense spread of bull-horns with which I have recklessly snatched. I assure you this is not the case. It should be quite obvious at this point that the culture of consumption remains the most unrelenting force in any public sphere. Once the public is convinced to grab hold of something that feels good, marketing, advertising and biology make it almost impossible to let go. Businesses know this.
In the 1970′s, a company called Brown and Williamson cross-bred different strains of tobacco plants until they were able to engineer what is infamously known as strain-Y1. Top honors of one of the most manipulative moves in corporate history would have to go to Brown and Williamson. Y1 was the culmination of an organized speciation effort which yielded a type of tobacco plant that contained nearly double the amount of nicotine. This isn’t the worst part. While nicotine is a highly dependence-forming stimulant, any harmful effects it has is negligible – nicotine is only toxic when taken into the bloodstream in vast quantities. What actually makes tobacco the leading cause of preventable death today is the way in which tobacco companies cultivate, farm, handle, treat, manufacture and distribute its refined particles like cigars, cigarettes and pipe-shavings. As it stands, farming practices remain as they are today simply because tobacco companies pay legislatures to avoid writing any consumer laws that would prevent unsafe handling.
Even today, it’s remarkably well concealed that the cancer causing carcinogens in cigarettes are found in the group of phosphate minerals called apatite. Investigating this basic example of criminal negligence, we find that apatite is used to fertilize tobacco, which partly deprives the plant of nitrogen. The purpose of this is to create a more “palatable flavor.” The most bitter truth is that apatite contains radium, lead-210 and polonium-210, which are known radioactive carcinogens. This is still the legal practice today. I’ve reread my notes countless times during the completion of this article, and I reel every time I remember this.
Largely credited to the marketing genius of Edward Bernays, cigarettes had already maligned their way into the public zeitgeist – and it happened in full light of the addictive nature of nicotine. Fast forward 50 years and it should be no secret how we could have the most decent, respectable, and moral human beings do the most indecent, immoral and despicable things: you raise children in a system that selects competition, power, control, apathy, indifference, and dominance, and you pit each against the other for paying-wages and access to resources.
The socioeconomic basis of our free market system requires immorality. Milton Friedman, one of the most respected and frequently cited economists of the twentieth century used to say that the only morality was greed. The logical fallacy of comparing tobacco to cannabis isn’t lost to me, but forming my schema for how industrialized-cannabis would be handled, based on the demonstrable pattern of how similar cash-crops are handled, is a very real and founded concern. Add the screwed up way in which our laws about such things are written, voted on and passed, it becomes an increasingly valid concern.
We have come full circle, and you may begin to see the light at the end of this long, dark, convoluted tunnel: before we can ever legislate marijuana and let it remain the positive influence it is today for so many people, we must have a new value system.
The people who write and enforce consumer laws must have a value system in place that would protect them from essentially being purchased by the very industries that they are supposed to regulate. As things are today, this isn’t possible. I’m not pointing any fingers. I still believe, perhaps a bit too naively, that we can one day find a way to honestly legislate things like consumption – but that’s for a far more ambitious article.
By decriminalizing marijuana, we would essentially be leaving vulnerable something that is clinically proven to be pure, therapeutic, harmless, non-addictive, and non-cancer-causing to mass-production and industrial pursuit – neither of which could care less about the safe handling of anything so long as it doesn’t jeopardize any profit-margin.
Prohibition has a long and dark legacy – but it may be necessary at this point in time. Surely, you say, those who should be asked to explain and justify themselves are the people who opposed every step of decriminalization, rather than those who support it – and so I will. These questions are being dealt with in their only predictable context.
As I stated earlier, to the left of the liberal consensus, people advert to the argument that decriminalization would reduce homicide-rates and minimize the influx of prisoners entering the penal-system – this is true, no question. To the right of the same consensus, supporters of decriminalization describe a bottomless pit of wasted dollars and pointless causalities, and that the only option is to withdrawal marijuana prohibition as fast as possible and let the inevitable cash flow. Not to mention the police-officers, judges, and politicians who are concurrently lost to drug related corruption. After all, how can one break a law that doesn’t exist? How can a politician lose her job for using a substance that isn’t illegal? All valid arguments.
The problem is that the loss-of-life argument doesn’t add up. There are an estimated 520,000 homicides that occur each year around the globe, according to the World Health Organization – a percentage of which can be attributed to drug-related events. The World Health Organization also reports that tobacco currently causes upwards of 5.4 million deaths per year – no doubt because of the reasons that were stated earlier. This is hardly a prospect to be viewed with indifference.
The only connection I’m implying between tobacco and marijuana is how they would both be handled as “legitimate” commercial products. We know what businesses have done to tobacco – and their victims. We know that legislatures are powerless to write laws that would protect the average marijuana consumer, as long as they are being lobbied against such things. You can rest assured that if enterprising organizations, who are already pawing at the gates of an already ripe market-demographic, ever get their greedy hands on marijuana, it will inevitably suffer a similar fate as tobacco. Try to picture fields of toxic cannabis, mutated by the criminal enrichment of radioactive fertilizer, pumped full of pesticides, preservatives, hormones and chemically-engineered addictive properties, while the harvesters of these crops drive prices below any independent endeavor.
A separate crutch of the decrim-argument is that independent growers wouldn’t bother with the commercial stuff if they could legally handle things on their own. At the same time, this argument fails to acknowledge how few people are bothered to grow their own tobacco today, when it’s far cheaper and less time-consuming to procure one’s habit from their local corner-store.
If this were strictly a numbers game, we seemingly stand to lose more lives to negligent business practices than we would to violence and victimization. Everything that is right about marijuana would be canceled out by the well established unfortunate truths of capitalism. This component of the commercial drug market does not in itself guarantee that the commercial drug market will be corrupt, that would be absurd, but the historical evidence has definitely supplied the imperative.
There is another, more nagging perspective that deserves equal consideration. The fundamental difference between the 5.14 million tobacco deaths, and the 520,000 homicides worldwide, is the whole of smart opinion – the freedom of choice. One of these groups made a legal lifestyle choice, the other may not have.
It’s no secret that commercial tobacco is the leading cause of cancer worldwide, and yet people still choose to partake on their own free will. While you might consider that the majority of homicide-victims suffer equal fates because of similar lifestyle choices, it is no spirit of good discourse to deny that the type of choice I’m talking about separates cancer, bullets and edged weapons. People know that they will die of cancer if they smoke cigars or cigarettes for an extended period of time. People do not know that they will be shot on their way to work in an act of violence that was intended for some drug peddler.
The truth is that we deny ourselves, in the case of marijuana, so many potential remedies. But this isn’t enough – judging by the emphatic resistance to decriminalization, it can’t be. Most people are genuinely not threatened by anyone who wishes to take a substance into their system, and this is self-evident with the nature of alcohol and cigarettes today. The liberty-of-choice argument would say that this right is none of the government’s business. What somebody does in their own home is no threat to anyone but themself. What does threaten most people are the deviants who are willing to shoot innocent bystanders in the street for the privilege to sell him that substance if it’s illegal.
Samuel Clemens once said, “Whose property is my body? Probably mine. I so regard it. If I experiment with it, who must be answerable? I, not the state.”
I stated that decriminalizing marijuana at this point would be a horrible, horrific, and dangerously negligent idea, but that does not necessarily mean it’s the wrong one. Alas, the crux.
What is my opinion? I loathe utilitarianism. One can rationalize the most horrible things for the greater good. If I were forced to choose between the death of a million innocent people, for example, and the rape of a single innocent child, I would spare the child every time. If I must choose between the death of 5.14 million people, and the death of 520,000 people, I must force myself to weigh the relevance of choice. And if the multitudes are shuffling off their mortal coils because they would rather enjoy the sharp buzz of some substance or other, I would be inclined to let them.
The police officer in me demands impartiality – to hell with the arguments, the law is the law. There will be time enough for that to happen, since I truly believe that the idea of the law is the most important substructure of civilization. Though I have to accept that the intellectual in me requires evidence, truth and justification. The thinking part of me cannot help but entertain the possibility that laws are written for behaviors we just don’t understand yet.
My only hope is that perhaps someone wiser than me could someday happen along this article, sift through the minutia herein, and somehow obtain the political influence to guide our reasoning into a more sane world. Part of me wonders if there even is an answer – if pursuing the right for people to feel good is even worth the trouble. But if America is intent on setting the standard of freedom for the entire planet, I would hope that liberty remains its chiefest value. I also hope that our nation’s morality could proudly and defiantly satellite that standard again some day.
Shane Lindemoen is an American author, journalist, and sometimes literary critic; he is also the National Affairs Editor of Secret Laboratory. Shane is a self-described “poor white boy from the east side who happens to read about politics and stuff.” He published his novel, Empire Dirt, in 2008. Visit Shane at http://www.shanelindemoen.com/.
E-mail Shane at email@example.com.