Bootleggers and Baptists: cannabis edition

Last month in Garden City, Kansas, an 11-year-old boy was detained by police after speaking up during a talk by a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) police officer about cannabis. His mother, as it turns out, is one Shona Banda, who has spent years advocating for the medicinal use of the drug, and after her son was detained, her home was raided and a judge recommended she lose custody of him:

As Shona’s son listened to the misinformation given by authorities to his class during the drug education presentation, he courageously spoke up and informed them that the information they were relating was incorrect in regards to cannabis.  He was pulled from class and sent to the office for questioning by authorities without his mother present.

When he failed to return home from school, Banda contacted the school only to be told that her son had be detained by authorities.  She went to the station, where she was informed that she was not being detained, but that they were obtaining a search warrant on her home and that she would not be permitted to enter the residence until the search was executed.

During the raid, authorities confiscated an alleged mere 2 ounces of cannabis flower and 1 ounce of cannabis oil. Banda has yet to be charged and was able to go home after the raid.  Shona had a hearing, which seemed to be going her way until the judge spoke up about how many charges she was going to be facing as a result of the raid on her home.  It was recommended that her son be placed into the custody of her ex, the boy’s father.  Luckily, he lives very close-by and she has not been denied visits with her son.  Shona’s next court date, is ironically schedule for 4/20.  She has no idea what will ensue next as a result of her son’s courageous words, but says, “they don’t have a clue that I’m walking in with [my] head held high, proud of who I am and what I do.”

This incident isn’t egregious simply because cannabis is “merely a plant” or has health benefits. Aside from any such benefits cannabis may have is the fact that the resources spent on its prohibition, and the very question of whether to prohibit it, are managed at levels of jurisdiction which are too high to accord very well with the cultural exigencies of people “on the ground”. Prohibition creates a boundary of legality that matches poorly with local and regional boundaries of culture (Garden City, it is to be noted, is only a few towns away from Colorado, where cannabis is legal).

Not only are there perhaps millions of cannabis users like Shona Banda, but those who go to prison for possession or sale of the drug are not actually having any possible underlying problem of criminality in their community addressed. They are being swept into a larger system of administration, which outsources the task of handling criminality—and indeed that of determining what constitutes crime—from the local or regional level to that of three hundred million people.

The channels through which $8.7 billion are spent each year on cannabis prohibition do not distinguish between a mother who uses cannabis oil medicinally and a delinquent for whom cannabis use is simply an easily targetable offense—or the many shades of respectability therebetween—nor do they provide solutions for the root causes of delinquency in particularly crime-ridden areas. Could the case ever reasonably be made that Detroit, for example, would see a massive drop in violent crime if cannabis ceased to exist?

You may have heard the tale of the bootleggers and the Baptists, in which groups who would never otherwise interact, and are in fact at cross purposes, join together to promote regulation:

“Arkansas liquor stores have allied with religious leaders to fight statewide legalization of alcohol sales. The stores in wet counties don’t want to lose customers. The churches don’t want to lose souls. Larry Page, a Southern Baptist pastor and director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, which traces its roots to the Anti-Saloon League of Arkansas in 1899, [also recalled]. . .when his group joined with feminists to oppose pornography and cooperated with Mississippi casinos to fight gambling in Arkansas.”[14]

The lesson here is twofold: first, that the prohibition of a given substance or activity will be to the benefit of both moralists and those who make their buck by taking advantage of the prohibition; and secondly, that the maintenance of local norms in a given area may be helped by ad-hoc alliances with outside groups.

Note, however, that the very fact that Arkansas liquor stores make money on sales to residents of dry counties is an indication of dry ordinances not matching real-life norms. In other words, the boundaries we set between groups are not always to the good of those groups; they limit agency in unhealthy ways, not only on the individual level but more importantly on the level of small groups. Drug prohibition is one example of such a boundary:

One pathological boundary that has been imposed top-down by our democratic system is drug prohibition. Total prohibition, in the form of the drug war, drew a boundary that created a very lucrative niche that only the most ruthless, violent actors could fill. The drug war prevented small-scale, non-totalitarian solutions to drug problems from ever being attempted, including the kind of small group rituals that allow people to use drugs in healthy, prosocial ways. The drug war hampers small group agency even more than individual agency; individuals may use drugs underground, supplied by those violent niche-fillers, in isolation or among the dispossessed, but if groups attempt to use drugs in healthy ways, a raid is almost guaranteed.

So for a conservative who values the formation of stable families and communities, as for a proponent of exit, to uphold such boundaries as drug prohibition is to harm one’s own interests—assuming that one does not live in a high-crime area whose safety would only be further endangered by the release of delinquents who happen only to have been busted for drug-related offenses, of course. But even then, no solution is being provided, only a temporary fix which must be continually repeated.

As we see in the case of Shona Banda and her son, this temporary fix also creates new problems of its own. It prevents healthy, semi-permeable boundaries from forming between different groups and areas, and thus diminishes local autonomy.

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