Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guns, Alcohol, Marijuana

The Super Bowl isn’t until this coming Sunday, but the longsuffering Kansas City Chiefs’ fans (of whom I am one) are already looking forward to next season. With a new coach (Andy Reid) and a new general manager (John Dorsey), Chiefs’ fans are trying to forget the past year by anticipating better things this fall.
But as terrible as the past season was on the field, it doesn’t match the tragedy last month of the murder-suicide by Jovan Belcher, the Chiefs’ player who killed his domestic partner and mother of his young daughter and then, a few hours later, killed himself in the presence of people high up in the Chiefs’ organization.
That tragedy spurred some public media commentators to write about the need for more stringent gun control. At the same time, others linked that tragic act of violence to alcohol. And, sure enough, when the autopsy report was released earlier this month, Belcher was found to have been legally drunk at the time of his death.
I have already written this month about the high number of murders caused by guns and the high number of deaths caused by drunk drivers. But alcohol is also linked to many of those murders as well. So, again, in order to save lives, there surely needs to be greater control of, or at least more responsible use of, both guns and alcohol.
At the present time, some politicians, beginning with the President, are making a concerted effort to pass meaningful control gun legislation, or at the very least to increase gun safety. But in spite of all the bad results that stem from drinking alcohol, as far as I know there is no new legislation about that problem being considered at all.
But what about marijuana? As most of you know, last November two states (Colorado and Washington) voted to make the recreational use of marijuana legal. (The medicinal use of marijuana had previously been legal in 18 states.) What should we think about such a change in public policy?
Let me be clear: I have never tried marijuana, and don’t intend to, legal or not. But it is my considered opinion that if alcohol is accepted by society as a legal drug, which it has been since 1933, then probably marijuana should be too. (That is certainly not true for meth, cocaine, heroin and other “hard drugs.”)
Marijuana does not seem to be as harmful as alcohol, and it is not as addictive as either alcohol or tobacco. In fact, the effects of marijuana may be far less detrimental to individuals and society than the effects of drinking alcohol or of smoking tobacco.
While certainly there should be laws against the use of marijuana before driving, the evidence seems to show that the rate of marijuana use to traffic accidents is far lower than the rate of drinking to traffic accidents. And there is a much lower rate of violent crimes related to marijuana than to alcohol.
In addition, decriminalizing marijuana would not only keep many young (and some older) people in the nation from becoming felons, it would also shift a tremendous amount of money from illicit drug merchants to tax revenues.
At any rate, I find it highly hypocritical for people who freely drink alcohol to be strongly opposed to the legalization of marijuana. While I would prefer for them both to be illegal, in reality probably they both should be legal.


  1. Interesting reflections on some of our "vices," Leroy. I'm with you on the marijuana issue of legalization. However, I would not take the position that I'd prefer alcohol and marijuana be illegal. I think you prefer they be legalized because it's impractical to criminalize them. I prefer they be legal because I prefer less repressive rather than more repressive societies.

    1. Anton, you are right: I am in favor of legalization of alcohol and marijuana for practical, pragmatic reasons.

      But doesn't your argument for a less repressive society feed the complaint of those who oppose additional gun control legislation?

  2. I don't think so, Leroy. I'm not in favor banning firearms. I'm for strict control of the selling, dissemination, and use of alcohol. I'm for strict control of the selling, dissemination, and use of guns. In your earlier column, you were quite right, I think, in viewing drunken driving as basically on a par with irresponsible use of firearms.

    1. Your point is well taken. Perhaps the most, or perhaps the best, we can hope for with regards to guns, alcohol, or marijuana is that there be strict controls and responsible use. The main problem, of course, is that there are so many irresponsible people in the world. How do we cope that?

  3. That question opens a potentially huge discussion. But the first short answer is that, yes, we exercise wise control of the selling, dissemination, and use of things irresponsible people would be irresponsible with. :) Automobile use is a good subject in this realm. We regulate it, license it, require training, renewal of licenses, regular inspections, safety features, charge personal property taxes, and we give expensive tickets for minor infractions. We could do comparable things with alcohol, guns, and marijuana. That's the quick short answer, I think, to your question.

    The really long answer involves two things--one a grand scheme for social organization and the other a matter of cultural values. We need to create a world that breeds fewer irresponsible people. Levels of irresponsible behavior vary by culture; presumably it's not a constant. So we learn what kinds of social factors give birth to more responsibility and reinforce those things.

    The other point I'd like to suggest is that we create a culture that caters to pleasure instead of economic productivity and technological domination. I think that what's at the root of the modern concern with drugs, alcohol, and such is the demand for a sober and disciplined workforce for the machinery of capitalism. This would involve a paradigm shift in our attitudes about life and human beings.

    This implies other kinds of questions, too, pertinent to your comments. For example, who is more irresponsible the drunk driver who kills someone in an auto accident or the capitalist/industrialist who grinds down the lives of working families, generation after generation, with excessive hours, minimal pay, and no benefits? In other words, I think your comments open up larger issues of social organization and cultural values. I remember Herbert Marcuse, somewhere in one of his books, asking the question regarding which is more obscene: the picture of a woman exposing her pubic hair or a general with a chest full of medals won in a war of imperialism.

    1. Wow, Anton, these are comments of great import.

      I like your "quick short answer," and find nothing in it to disagree with.

      I also like your statement that we "need to create a world that breeds fewer irresponsible people." The main issue here is, how can we as a society do a better job in doing that?

      I am not sure I can agree with your call for a society that "caters to pleasure." There are still too many people in the world that are hungry and live in poverty for that, it seems to me. (Of course a major problem of productivity now is the matter of distribution.)

      Your last paragraph is one which we need to explore more fully, for it raises very significant issues. Societal harm is being done in many ways, but much of that harm is overlooked because it is being done in legal ways by people with power and privilege, as you suggest.

      I also agree with you (and Marcuse) about the need to rethink what is obscene. I found the Marcuse quote (and thanks for referring to him; I hadn't thought about him for a long time): "Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression" ("An Essay on Liberation," p. 7).

    2. I have a personal interest in this, as my oldest grandson is experiencing prosecution in two cases at the present time. He needs counseling and treatment to overcome his irresponsible drug use resulting in property damage and self-harm, and therefore I would want funding and court orders to facilitate counseling and treatment, as well as educational campaigns to reduce irresponsible behavior in the first place.

      Uncovering the cultural factors which reduce irresponsible behavior is a very interesting enterprise, and I would suggest the research of David Sloan Wilson and his book, "The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time." Whether pleasure seeking would be a panacea, or socialistic distribution of goods, I am an agnostic on these ideas. I'm leaning toward to pro-social community building, on multiple levels (local/city/state/nation/continent/world) as the most promising strategy to cope with climate change as well as crime and delinquency . . .

    3. Phil, I am sorry about your grandson experiencing prosecution--and sorry that he became involved in "irresponsible drug use." That is the story of so many people now, and it is perplexing to know what we can do to help increase the development of people acting responsibly.

  4. Thinking Friend Kevin Payne, from neighboring Independence (MO), wrote (by e-mail and posted here with his permission),

    "Good article; I completely agree that alcohol should be more restricted and less available – even though that’s probably not going to happen.

    "It’s amazing that we have a national uproar when we talk about the deaths from gun violence per year, and yet are completely comfortable with at least 10,000 alcohol-related vehicle deaths per year (not to mention the huge social costs of alcohol abuse!)

    I also tend to agree with you on the legalization of pot – let’s legalize it and tax it, and stop putting teenagers in jail for it."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kevin. Your point about teenagers is certainly an important factor to consider, as is the fact that a majority of marijuana arrests are of Blacks and Hispanics.

      In addition, I have learned that in 2011, marijuana possession arrests totaled 663,032 — nearly 130,000 more than than arrests for all violent crimes combined.

  5. I think I need to say that I'm using "pleasure" in a very broad . . . uh . . . philosophical sense--probably the Aristotelian sense, in that Aristotle suggested human beings are in pursuit of eudaemonia, usually translated "happiness" but which should be translated something like "satisfaction and contentment." Putting my point in another way: A society that makes earning our grub central to life has reduced life's meaning to what we have in common with all other animals. In other words, what good is human consciousness and social organization if they're not used to fulfill our humanity?

    Pip: I have a grandson in jail right now because of alcohol-abuse.

    Thanks for the quotation, Leroy. I couldn't find it in the moment I was responding this morning.

    1. Anton, I can easily understand your use of "pleasure" in the Aristotelian sense, and perhaps I over-reacted to a valid point.

      But I am quite negative about the individualistic hedonism that is so prevalent in Western society (and now more and more in Japan, too).

      If "eudaemonia" is something we seek for all people, working together toward that end, surely that is a good thing. Working for only material ends is not a worthy goal for humankind.


    2. Leroy, I think I agree with everything you said, but I'm not sure because I don't know what you mean by "individualistic hedonism."

      I suspect that nearly all if not all of us followers of your blog would personally view working in society for less suffering, more justice, greater truth, and a richer culture as far more important than the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures or material goods. But such work implies a vision for societies and individuals--namely, societies free of want, deprivation, unnecessary suffering, injustice, and oppression--which require a good amount of material goods and opportunities for pleasure. :)

      In other words, I think we want a world in which people are free to pursue things they like, that make them feel good, that allow them all the stuff that indeed would make being a human being a fulfilling experience. And I would say that surely hedonistic pleasures would be a part of it.

      Of course, I wouldn't suggest that a fully human life should be dominated by the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure unless it's defined as broadly as Aristotle's eudaemonia. When I look around me, the people whom I see with the resources to pursue hedonism are not usually the ones dominated by that drive. So I suspect that individualistic hedonism is a reaction to other troubling aspects of life and society.

    3. Anton, most "arguments" come down to a matter of definitions, don't they.

      As I understand it, (individualistic) hedonism sees pleasure as the "greatest good," the goal of life. So the quest for pleasure dominates a hedonistic person's existence. Thus, it seems to me that such a worldview is basically selfish and the cause of strife and violence between individuals, as well as between segments of society.

      It also seems to me that those who have a hedonistic worldview do not, and cannot, be much interested in, or very active in working for, "societies free of want, deprivation, unnecessary suffering, injustice, and oppression," for actively seeking such societies will probably curtain some of the pleasures they enjoy as a result of unjust structures in society.

  6. Actually, there is another connection between drugs and guns, namely, our disastrous war on drugs has militarized the illegal drug industry to the point where it is a major cause of gun deaths. For instance, the last estimate I saw for the price of the Mexican crackdown on the drug trade over the last few years has been about 50,000 excess deaths in Mexico, with no end in sight. The illegal drug trade is a major force in urban violence within the United States. We never learned the lesson of Al Capone. Alcohol fueled gun violence during prohibition. I believe America is much better off with Coors and Budweiser replacing Al Capone, and I believe we would be much better off with a similar transition to a legal drug trade. For this reason, I would not only legalize marijuana, but also the other drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Indeed, even other traditional criminal industries such as gambling and prostitution would do less damage as legal, regulated, and taxed industries. Look at how America has cracked down on tobacco in the last generation, without making it illegal, and we can see a much better model for handling a number social problems that should be seen as problems, and even sins, but not as crimes.

    A similar dynamic works with guns themselves. I find it interesting that the debate never mentions the guns that are universally accepted as strictly limited to professional military use, namely, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, bazookas, tanks, etc. What we are debating is which group assault rifles and large magazines belong in. On the other side, there is little debate about widespread civilian ownership of rifles, shotguns and handguns, either. We need a better basic definition of what really is the dividing line between guns that are appropriate for civilian ownership, and what must be restricted to professional military and police use. I believe if that were done, the current new gun control proposals would look quite reasonable. Unfortunately, we live in a country where "reasonable" and "gun" do not belong in the same sentence.

    My personal supposition is that the underlying problem in all these seemingly separate problems is what President Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex." American gun manufacturers make vast profits both at home and abroad. The bloated American prison system is another major profit center, with more and more of the system privatized, and the rest still using lots of expensive equipment. Only the military-industrial complex is the winner of the war on drugs, as it was the only winner of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. People are merely pawns on their chessboard. Physicists are excited about the discovery of dark matter and dark energy. If only we were so excited to finally understand the dark money and dark ideas that drive so much of our world.

    1. Craig, thanks for once again posting thoughtful, and thought-provoking, comments, and I apologize for being so slow to reply.

      I agree with most of what you wrote—but not with all of it. You make an important dividing line between “guns that are appropriate for civilian ownership, and what must be restricted to professional military and police use.” Certainly a major discussion about gun control in the country now is which side of that line assault weapons with large magazines should be on.

      It seems to me that the same sort of line ought to be drawn between alcohol and marijuana on one side and meth, heroin, and cocaine on the other. While my knowledge about the latter is limited, my impression is that they are so harmful to the people who use them, and to the surrounding society, that they should continue to be on the list of banned substances.

      And then there is prostitution, which would have to include human trafficking, I would assume. As long as a prostitute works at her “profession” under the supervision of a pimp, it seems that that is a form of slavery. (There are probably a fair number of prostitutes who operate without a pimp, and perhaps their situation should be considered somewhat differently. And there are male prostitutes, too, but the same logic would apply to them.)

      Human trafficking clearly is slavery. So just as long ago slavery was rightfully made illegal, it seems to me that prostitution and especially human trafficking ought to be (remain) illegal and that especially the latter should be prosecuted more aggressively than it seems to be at present.

    2. Some years ago I ran across a quote that said, "Compulsion in the pursuit of a norm results in abnormal behavior." Sometimes the norm is so important that we have to endure the abnormal behavior. This is especially true where a direct victim is involved. For instance, murder is so horrible that we enforce laws against murder, even though we know it will result in all manner of coverups, secondary crimes, and other undesirable behavior. In lesser crimes, we need to be very careful whether we are helping or hurting.

      Leroy's point about the slavery inherent in prostitution provides another angle for viewing this question. I agree that human trafficking is a terrible thing. The question is, does outlawing prostitution actually protect women? I suspect that it actually has the opposite effect. The fact that prostitution is illegal means the prostitute does not have access to normal legal and social protections. What she does have is participation in an illegal business where a network of threats and bribes makes it more likely that she will succeed in her business. It also means that, lacking all legal competition, the pimp system has an incentive to obtain new prostitutes by all means fair and foul.

      As for some drugs being more dangerous, yes they are. However, that does not mean that it would be a mistake to legalize them. During prohibition dangerous varieties of alcohol caused blindness and death. I suspect legal drugs would for the most part be less dangerous than the current illegal varieties. Today accidental overdoses and contamination problems are common. Lack of quality control makes it happen. Public drunkenness laws would still cover much of the public problems caused by drugs. I will admit that legalization may risk additional harm to some users, although I hope it will ultimately reduce the number of users. I am as concerned about the protection of the overall public as the users, and for the public at large I strongly believe that legalization will provide a safer country by reducing the incentives for dangerous anti-social behavior. Having said that, it might be found that a few drugs are simply too dangerous to release. If so, at least then we could focus our efforts on those drugs, and let the less dangerous ones be. By the way, while heroin has a bad rap, it does not have that much effect on the actual health of the user. Tobacco and alcohol kill far more users.

    3. Craig, again you have presented ideas well worth thinking about and considering seriously.

      I guess at this point I would just have to say that I am not at all sure about wanting to agree with legalizing "hard drugs" -- or prostitution. Nor do I think that society in general is likely to do that any time soon.

      For now, perhaps even the legalization of marijuana is unlikely for most states across the country, and maybe only after that becomes more widely done (or accepted) can the other matters be considered more fully.

  7. Well said, Craig. I agree entirely.

  8. In an e-mail yesterday, Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson wrote,

    "Sound reasoning, Leroy! I know about the damage alcohol causes from firsthand experience with an alcoholic father. You may be interested in reading my autobiography, 'A Miracle of Grace.'"