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Pot, Not the Myth of Mass Incarceration, Ruins Lives

BY LEN CABRERA/APRIL 15, 2019

An April 10 editorial in The Gainesville Sun (“Stop Ruining Lives Over Pot Possession”) is more evidence of the media purposely trying to undermine the civil society through emotional rhetoric and unsupported claims to invent new victim classes.

The editorial starts with the misleading term “mass incarceration.” Anyone with a basic knowledge of the criminal justice system knows that there is no such thing as mass incarceration in our country. Each person is charged individually and has a Constitutional right to legal counsel in a public trial in all criminal prosecutions. People are not just rounded up in paddy wagons and thrown into jail for no reason (with the exception of Japanese internment during World War II). 

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The editorial blames these fictitious incarcerations on the “war on drugs” with no data to back up the assertion. According to Fordham law professor John Pfaff, only about twenty percent of all prisoners added in each of the last three decades have been because of drug offenses, and a small fraction of those were for marijuana. Over two-thirds of the prisoners were convicted of violent crimes or property crimes. 

The only part of the opening sentence that may be factual is not backed up with evidence. The editorial board (nobody had the courage to put a name to the column) claimed minorities are “harmed by disproportionate drug arrests.” A quick online search finds a Brookings Institute slide using 2015 Census Bureau and FBI data to show that drug use is about the same between blacks and whites, but blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

On the surface, that statistic seems to imply some racial prejudice on the part of police departments, but it reflects the reality that police are more likely to patrol black neighborhoods, usually at the request of law-abiding black residents or black community leaders, as reported by Yale law professors Tracey Meares and James Forman, Jr.

In the City of Gainesville, the chief of police and three of the seven city commissioners are minorities. Does the editorial board believe the city is pushing racist policing policies? The Sun itself reported on special policing in the Duval neighborhood.

The editorial claims that the arrests for marijuana are ruining lives, as if drug use itself does not affect the drug users. Australian economists Jan C. van Ours and Jenny Williams found heavy users of cannabis are more susceptible to mental health problems. They also said early cannabis use reduces educational attainment, so even those who aren’t arrested are hurting their future prospects. The editorial board doesn’t seem to care about these facts.

The editorial tries to normalize marijuana use by quoting a poll showing 62 percent of respondents think marijuana should be regulated like alcohol. Without getting into the progressive fantasy of direct democracy (which always ends in tyranny), the concept of equating marijuana with alcohol is sophomoric. Legally, proving impairment for a drunk driver is objectively simple with a breathalyzer because impairment is directly correlated to blood alcohol level. Marijuana has no objective measure because it can be detected in the body long after impairment ceases. A National Institute on Drug Abuse review of multiple studies found that drivers with high concentrations of THC in their blood are three to seven times more likely to be responsible for a crash and twice as likely to cause fatal crashes than sober drivers.

The real impact of The Gainesville Sun‘s editorial is to undermine the civil society by eroding the “social psychological factors” that contribute to a stable, law-abiding society (according to Meares). In this case, The Sun is questioning the substance of the law and is pushing a fiction that the enforcement of the law is unfair.

Rather than blaming the arrests for ruining lives, we should make marijuana users (and all at-risk youth) aware of the consequences of their actions (legal or not). Not that this anxiety-prone generation needs more to worry about, but decisions in school and young adulthood can have a huge impact on one’s future. Sadly, many are too myopic to see the consequences, and The Sun‘s editorial board is happy to deflect the responsibility and let them continue ruining their lives.

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