Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

Drug Deaths vs Media Coverage

From the Guardian’s Data Blog comes this neat visualization of poisoning deaths from various drugs and compared to press coverage thereof. The at the comparison for pot in particular.

I think this image, which shows the deaths as a proportion of users is probably more relevant when considering the likely social consequences of media bias.

Prohibition Cartoon of the Day

1376_victims_pile

 

By Winsor McCay, courtesy of DrugSenseBot. For a few of the victims of contemporary prohibition, see here.

Glenn Beck Suggests Liberalized Medical Marijuana is a Tool of Tyranny

Skip to about the 4-minute mark. What a dick:

Women and Drug Legalization

At the risk of reviving the libertarian misogyny bogeyman, I’ll quote an interesting post from Laura Greenback on why women are on average more opposed to the legalization of marijuana:

What could it be? Why would women shy away from this cause? Do men use marijuana more? Do women just hide it better?

When I asked my girlfriends about it, a college roommate suggested that the feminist attitude that got us where we are today works against us when it comes to issues like marijuana policy. We feel the pressure to be seen as strong workers and perfect mothers, so we shy away from getting behind something our coworkers and PTA members might see as “out there.” (…)

Of course, it’s harder for those of us who are role models for children. I’m a mentor of a teenage girl. When I started at MPP, I worried about being a bad influence. But whenever I worry, I think about how empowered she was when I took her to a self-defense class, or how much fun we had riding roller coasters at Six Flags.

When it came up, we talked about how she is too young to try marijuana because her brain is still developing. I told her that medical marijuana helps sick people, and that I am working to keep good people out of jail.

It’s a tougher call for mothers. My own sister told me her husband didn’t want their kids around me at first. But they chilled out, and the kids still call me Aunt Laura and beg me to help them make mini-documentaries on their flip cam.

I think that’s exactly right: women are more likely than men to signal social solidarity through their policy preferences. My guess is that this can be explained with evolutionary theory, but, whatever the reason, it seems to hold empirically.  If women are more communitarian, libertarians would do well to focus on the communitarian aspects of libertarianism. Women aren’t anti-libertarian in any substantive sense; but libertarianism has an understandable but undeserved reputation for antisocial abstract individualism.

Selling Weed on Twitter

It is state-sanctioned medical weed, though (Hat tip: @goodiemonster):

California won’t let the gays marry but it does let people micro-blog (medical) drug deals. Meet former Northwestern J-school student Dann Halem, who is building an online business selling weed on Twitter. How is this possible you ask? (…)

The @artistscollctve Twitter account went up last week and, in the vein of a more #420 friendly Kogi BBQ, the medical marijuana delivery service also boasts “On-Time GPS” and the availability of “green crack.” Artists for Access is a “creative non-profit” operating under something called a 501 3c non-profit license, “as far as the law is concerned, we’re good.”

Technically legal in California, Halem’s dicey business model is legit from a state standpoint, but not federally. You can’t just call up an get a bag, but knowing the multitudes of dodgy loopholes that exist in the CA medical marijuana policy (i.e. insomnia counts) it’s probably not that hard to score a prescription. Line up your doctor’s notes ASAP! Because this opportunity may not (probably won’t) last.

I’ve heard of a few people buying non-medical weed via forums, but not nearly as many as I’d prefer. The internets could drastically reduce the (currently very high) transaction costs of purchasing the poison of your choice. The problem, of course, is the lack of security and trust needed to organize transactions online secretly.

Arto Bendiken has developed a couple of Drupal modules which could help with this. Agora provides the infrastructure for a market, while Lockdown provides security in case the narcs come calling. They both look ridiculously awesome, and I just wish my geek-fu was strong enough to fully understand all the technical details.

Systems like this could go a long way in making black markets more efficient, but I think the problem of trust remains. I suspect it would be useful for anyone trying to develop this sort of thing to look at how meatspace black markets have always worked – considering the ways in which initiation rituals serve as a costly signal and the incentive-aligning effects of vouching, for example.

Man Smokes Joint in Parliament

From the New Zealand Herald:

A man briefly lit up a cannabis joint in Parliament before being nabbed by security yesterday.

The man lit the joint in the public gallery about 5.30pm during the second reading of the Resource Management (Climate Protection) Amendment Bill.

He was quickly grabbed by security and removed. There was no indication it was any sort of protest, said Parliamentary Services spokesman Warren Inkster. (…)

The matter had been handed over to police, he said.

I think lighting a joint in a building you partly fund just because you feel like getting high is the ultimate act of protest, myself.

Libertarian Music Friday: Black Markets Increase Transaction Costs Edition

Lou Reed and John Cale perform Waiting for the Man. If Lou Reed came up with this song while waiting to buy smack, his time was well spent. I suspect, though, that the net effect of wating for drug dealers (they’re never early, they’re always late) is hugely wasteful.

A Lesson in Comparative Advantage and Liberal Tolerance from Star Trek: TNG

In S01E21 – Symbiosis, we are introduced to a planet which specializes completely in the manufacture of a single drug, all of which is exported to a neighbouring planet. The relevant part is about 6 minutes into this video:

The lesson continues in the following video. There is then a discussion of liberal tolerance. Dr Crusher finds the relationship distasteful and exploitative. Captain Picard reminds her that it’s not the Federation’s place to impose human values on other societies.

Unfortunately, the rest of the episode is a Saved by the Bell-quality sermon about the dangers of addictive drugs, ending with Picard cynically going against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Prime Directive in order to rid the planet of the scourge of narcotics.

Alcohol vs. Marijuana Prohibition

Those who favour legalizing marijuana often point out that both the personal and social costs of alcohol are much higher, and argue that it is inconsistent to prohibit pot but not booze on conventional ‘public health’ grounds. That’s fairly difficult to deny, but the further step is often made that it would be preferable to prohibit alcohol than to prohibit marijuana. I don’t think that’s right.

As things stand, many more people enjoy alcohol than marijuana. I don’t think this entirely depends on the fact that the former is legal, and therefore more available at lower cost and higher quality, than the latter. Alcohol is a stronger pro-social drug than marijuana and has more predictable effects. Nobody has unpleasant experiences with alcohol except when they overdo things and it’s pretty easy to regulate your alcohol consumption to ensure you have a good time. The peak experience of those who enjoy pot may well be more pleasant than that of alcohol, but it appeals to a smaller market.

My guess is that alcohol would garner a much higher aggregate willingness to pay than marijuana, even if both were legal. I’m not terribly comfortable making interpersonal utility comparisons, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that alcohol prohibition would lead to larger welfare losses than marijuana prohibition. This is a good argument for the idea that marijuana prohibition could be justified and alcohol prohibition unjustified on utilitarian grounds*, but I doubt prohibitionists would view more people smoking pot as grounds for legalization.  

*Not that I think the prohibition of any recreational substance is ever justified, and I certainly don’t think marijuana prohibition is utility-enhancing. 

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