Naked Capitalism: Drugs and Incarceration


Bob Goodwin: ‘Drug’ is a Teetering Social Concept

Posted on October 28, 2014 by

Yves here. Bob Goodwin discusses how the idea of legal versus illegal drugs has become a more obviously porous barrier than it was in his youth, even given the differences in how those differences are enforced across income/racial groups.

One thing that Bob may have deemed to be so obvious as to not be worth discussing is the casualness of prescribing what amount to performance-enhancing drugs to children, such as Ritalin and Adderall, along with troublingly frequent dispensing of antidepressants. Studies on safety are all short term; the idea of messing with the chemistry of developing brains, save in circumstances when the child is in acute distress, is heinous. Yet in parallel, kids have wised up and use various prescription stimulants, most notably Adderall, as study and test aids. I recall reading a New Yorker article on it at least a decade and maybe even more than a dozen years ago, on how utterly routine it was for kids in elite private schools to get these drugs prescribed, or filch their parents’ supplies, and trade them among their peers. My understanding is that the use of these drugs during exams, and for some students, on an ongoing basis, is routine.

By Bob Goodwin, an investor and medical device entrepreneur who lives in Mercer Island, Washington

I work a few blocks from a legal pot shop near Seattle. It is as legal for me to buy and consume Marijuana at home as it is to buy and consume beer. I used a lot of illegal drugs when I was younger, and I use a lot of legal drugs for a serious illness today. One of the legal drugs I need today, is a schedule 2 drug, because it is commonly resold illegally. Alcohol and tobacco have been legal drugs for most of the last few centuries, based on an uncomfortable accommodation, more than an acceptance, Furthermore there has been precipitous decline in the use of both. (here here here)

I am told that Marijuana is actually a very good drug for my disease here and the pot shop seems clean, well informed, comprehensive and professional. So why not? Well one big problem I have is that I have a 14 year old son, and two daughters 10 and 8. I also have an older son with two children of his own, and he has never used illegal drugs. I would like my younger children to read this essay and make an informed decision about role of drugs in their life. That was the approach my parents took with me when I was young, and I went to a community display of information about drugs. I took it as more of an advertisement FOR drugs, than against them. So I have fallen back to the approach most commonly used by people in my generation: “I used illegal drugs heavily when I was young. Don’t be me.”

I can easily avoid the tension I am hinting at by avoiding the pot shop. But I am intrigued by social tensions. The social tension today is the teetering concept that there are three types of drugs: social, medical and abused. For me, marijuana is uncomfortably all three simultaneously. It is legal, so it is essentially legally the same as alcohol and cigarettes, even if the culture hasn’t caught up. And most abused drugs are exactly the same as medical drugs, except that they exist in the unregulated part of our society.

Marijuana is an unexpected foil, but a natural one. For all its downsides, they are tiny compared even to over-the-counter medications. So most of the tension caused by Marijuana can’t be easily addressed on scientific or legalistic grounds. It is forcing a discussion about the definition of what a drug is.

History is rich with drugs, and has been central in cultures. Think of Greeks dancing in vats of grapes or the fact the word Assassin is derived from word Hashish, or even the Opium wars. But our culture has added two new components: drug companies, and the prison industrial complex.

When I stocked up on illegal drugs in college, my dad stocked up on drugs at the pharmacy. While I was in college, drug use was wide spread, but incarceration was low. In the ghetto’s incarceration for the same activity was rampant. Both of these contrasts were because of policy decisions.

Regulation is necessary, certainly in this space, but there is always an irresistible pressure for capture in regulation. Absentee landlords are fairly blamed for the Irish potato famine, but despite a failure of the potato crop, there was adequate food in Ireland. It actually took a significant military presence to facilitate the exporting of food from Ireland during the famine. The regulatory machinery was protecting legitimate and legal property rights. Crop failure was not new to Ireland, but never before had the regulatory system been strong enough to cause people to starve.

What regulatory rights have been captured in our drug culture? There are two. First, drug companies, hospitals, doctors (16% of our economy) would largely become obsolete if treatments that almost always involve drugs were not funneled through a highly regulated system. Second, A sizable part of the population has no access to this system, and a majority has very limited access to this system. While the regulatory bottleneck of Ireland is not a fair comparison, there is a real regulatory bottleneck in American medicine. No such bottleneck could possibly be an optimum for public health. This bottleneck is an optimum for legacy institutions. Most abuse of illegal drugs occurs from people with limited or no access to the medical industrial complex.

The second capture is more subtle. Access to legal drugs is stratified by wealth and age. Illegal drug users are mostly young or not wealthy enough to have full access to our health care system. But college kids almost never get sent to jail for using drugs, so it is my thesis that drug incarceration is less about drugs than it is about incarceration. There is a regulatory bottleneck for wealth too.

Some very bright black men have built impressive organizational structures for the distribution of medicine to willing customers. Their hall of fame is called Sing-Sing. A struggling family cannot rent a food truck and park it in a rich neighborhood for income, or run a small barber shop inside their isolated apartment for the benefit of the middle class. Like in Ireland, their only legal opportunity for employment is in the food service business, and the pay is proportionate to the potato crop yield.

So celebrate the legalization of Marijuana, but ask your kids not to use it. We know regulation is needed, but let’s find a damn way to make it rational, fair and transparent.


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