Hanging out with the ‘legalize it’ crowd

“I’m surprised you’re here … actually, I’m shocked,” was the candid response when I bumped into David Nott, president of the Reason Foundation, last week at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles. (Actually, it was at another meeting a few weeks earlier, hosted by Reason and run by Mr. Nott, where I got the idea to attend the drug reform conference.) So there we stood. “This is not your typical crowd,” he said politely with crushing heaps of understatement.

To give you an idea of how atypical this meeting was for me, it was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, NORML (the legalize marijuana crowd), Marijuana Policy Project, Open Society Foundations (i.e., George Soros) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, among others. The primary host was the Drug Policy Alliance, a coordinating organization with a gravitational pull to legalize everything and anything drug related.

The size of the crowd was impressive, approximately 1,200 attendees. Its diversity was unimpressive, unless you count me, who I guess made the event “bipartisan,” if we’re using the new political vernacular. Otherwise all participants were of the same ilk: people who believe deeply and passionately that America ought to end the “war on drugs.” Of course, they might describe themselves as completely diverse in the sense that they come from all walks of life, backgrounds and professions. But astronauts on the space shuttle were diverse, and yet they sat in the same capsule with the same operating manual and the same mission. This conference was at least one face of the modern progressive movement.

The attendance list reads like a who’s who of ACORN and Occupy Wall Street protesters, even including some people from law enforcement (in this case cops who favor legalizing drugs, a small but unsurprisingly welcomed faction). The best I could tell, most attendees were social workers and reformed drug addicts. There was a large group of African-Americans who see how drugs are killing their communities, literally. I saw lots and lots of “students,” as you’d expect to see at a legalize-drug conference in California. San Francisco seemed to be as equally represented as Los Angeles in the break-out sessions. And, yes, aging hippies were all over the place.

None of those descriptions discredits the conference. Clearly, there is organization and a modicum of money behind this alliance. Ethan Nadelmann, a human firehose of articulation, is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance based inNew York City. He is the movement’s most verbose and experienced spokesperson. In the program’s “welcome” packet, he writes:

We’re a diverse and growing movement, and the program reflects that. There are more trainings than at any previous conference, and more sessions on youth, organizing, and marijuana law reform. Rather than carving out a special panel or two on issues of racial justice, we’ve integrated them into many sessions. …

And don’t forget: we’re here not just to build consensus but to argue and debate and rejoice in our diversity. If you don’t get upset by at least one thing someone says or does, this conference will not be everything it should be. Our only obligation is to give one another the benefit of the doubt, and remember that no powerful political movement was ever built without vigorous debate within.

While I realize he wasn’t talking to me (not being the typical attendee), I wasn’t upset at all. There were break-out sessions I attended wherein I had no understanding of or expertise with which to measure the veracity of anything that was said, other than to do as Mr. Nadelmann requested and give the commentators the benefit of the doubt. After all, I was there to learn, not argue.

Even though in Utah liquor is largely the “illegal drug,” I had guessed that the arguments in the drug debate often overlap with the arguments in the liquor debate (they do, by the way). And I wanted to hear those arguments. I wanted to hear those sobering (forgive the pun) policy conundrums that might help me wrap my brain around why legalizing drugs (or privatizing liquor sales in Utah) would be a good idea.

While I will blog on several conference-inspired thoughts over the next little while, I will add here that the “legalize crowd” thinks differently than I do. Our paradigms are different. It took the better part of a day for me to flip the switch and set their context as mine. When I did, I found that their world makes a lot of sense. When everyone is a victim of a grand government conspiracy (yup, that’s how the “war on drugs” was described there), it’s more than reasonable to encourage the powers that be to hit the “easy button” and legalize heretofore illegal narcotics.

Another way for me to understand this basic point was to listen to what they were saying through my own filter of immigration policy. With immigration, I understand how bad laws create criminals and lead otherwise sane decision-makers into insane spirals of misjudgment. In any context of the rule of law, if we get the rule wrong, the law will be wrong as well. In this way I get (not agree with) the pro-legalize sentiment. Of course with drugs we’re not talking about laws criminalizing personhood (as many anti-immigrant attitudes do), we’re talking about criminalizing a commodity. But the same cautious prudence needs to be applied in our drug policies. For instance, just because I believe we rightly criminalize certain narcotics doesn’t mean throwing everyone in jail is the right thing to do.

Barring divine intervention, I will not support legalizing certain drugs in the foreseeable future. I’m a “Prohibition” guy on this stuff and on alcohol. I’d also like to think that as a conservative I’m prudent and aware that the criminalization of something doesn’t mean that everyone involved is truly a “criminal” without first sorting through some process of prioritization. Nor do I think that criminalization means incarceration is the only, or best, answer in the war on drugs.

I look forward to sharing more thoughts on this.