Marijuana, Cocaine and Heroin

I’ve been hearing from a number of constituents who are calling for full legalization and taxation of marijuana. I think that it is much more useful to focus on reducing mandatory minimum sentences for the harder drugs and I’m hopeful that our financial crunch will create the conditions for responsible movement on sentencing policy.

The case of drug legalization that people are making runs as follow: It’s a terrible thing to lock people up for just trying to have fun in their own way, or for addiction, which is really a disease. Prohibition drives up the cost of drugs and forces addicts to steal to maintain their habits. Drug dealers, working outside the law, have to turn to violence to resolve disputes that others can resolve in court. We are destroying civil society in Latin America by enriching ruthless drug lords.

Here are the weaknesses in this line of thought. First, incarcerations for drug possession alone are rare. Drug use per se is all too common for law enforcement agencies or judges to treat it as an offense meriting incarceration. Jails do hold some people who ostensibly are there on possession charges but a closer look shows most of these cases to be dealing cases that were plea bargained down to possession.

Second, even if we legalized drugs, drug use would still lead to crime. Today, illegal drug use is constrained by high cost and low availability. If we legalized drugs, drug users would use a lot more drugs. Cocaine use is never satiating. People with unlimited access will binge to exhaustion. Heroin is satiating, but heroin users can build up tolerance so that they need to maintain a huge habit. In a world where drugs were legal, we would have to expect continued habit-driven crime. Users would continue to use as much as they could afford and would steal to afford more.

Third, while gun violence in urban poverty areas may have its roots in the crack wars of the 80s, it is no longer consistently associated with drug use. People have guns and use guns to settle scores that have nothing to do with drugs.

It’s the drug lords in Latin America that give me the greatest pause about our drug policy. I do feel we have to take some responsibility for undermining the civil societies to the South of us by enriching their worst people. I spent a weekend about 10 years ago in conversations with Colombian drug policy scholar, Francisco Thoumi. He helped us understand how Colombia (rather than Peru or Bolivia where coca grows) had come to a position of dominance in the drug trade — it had to do with the corruption and alienation among the elites there that goes back long before cocaine. It was the corruption that created the drug trade, not the reverse. But he believed drugs have made the problem worse.

So the arguments in favor of legalization are not ridiculous, but they all have weaknesses, and when you set them against the horrors that unconstrained widespread use of cocaine and heroin would likely produce, they aren’t sufficiently compelling.

What is undeniable is that a whole lot of young men are going to jail for dealing drugs. But not for marijuana, rather cocaine and heroin: I did a study of state prison incarcerations for drug crimes in the mid-90s and of 1,000 cases sampled, only 3 were for marijuana (in all three cases dealing over 50 pounds).

I’m not ready to say that people shouldn’t go to jail for dealing drugs, but I do think that many people in Massachusetts are going to jail for too long. For some drug crimes, our mandatories are above the federal mandatories. So, I’ve filed legislation that would level out drug sentencing and I look forward to making common cause with other advocates of sentencing reform in the Fall.

I’m convinced that the most compelling argument for change in domestic drug policy is that we wasting money by punishing lower level drug dealers — some of them just kids who sell cocaine the way kids I knew sold firecrackers — as if they were rapists and murderers. Many drug dealers are worse than that — violent gang members — but prosecutors can find other ways to lock them up. Prosecutors don’t need unreasonable mandatory drug sentences in their arsenal. In a financial crunch, we might be able to face this fact objectively and make some needed changes.

Update: Text of a petition signed by a number of constituents, January 2015:

“WE THE PEOPLE need to stand and fight together to stop the number of people dying from heroin overdoses. Heroin is killing people in staggering numbers in Massachusetts. More often than not, it is killing our younger generation daily. We are losing the youth of our nation.”

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

10 replies on “Marijuana, Cocaine and Heroin”

  1. Will, while I agree with many of the thoughts above, it’s important to separate classes of “drugs” and “drug users”. Remembering that that fine Pinot Noir you may have had with dinner last night generally falls into just about the same category as your average High School kid’s joint, it’s reasonable to say, “gosh, why is one legal and the other one illegal?” (interesting historical perspective on this at ). In this argument, one would, most reasonably, argue that if we’re “serious” about cracking down on drug use, we need to criminalize alcohol, and probably tobacco (goodbye Anderson Valley 2007 and that nice macanudo after dinner) – and we all know how well Prohibition worked back in the 20’s –

    From the Cato institute: Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became “organized”; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending. It led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to encounter in the absence of Prohibition.
    Those results are documented from a variety of sources, most of which, ironically, are the work of supporters of Prohibition–most economists and social scientists supported it. Their findings make the case against Prohibition that much stronger.

    Arguments for Cocaine and hard drugs legalization are less fuzzy. Studies can show specific neurological reasons to control these substances create an argument for non-controlled use, but the lesson of Prohibition should be that Government legislation of morality led to greater evils than it was trying to cure.

    I applaud your goal of rationalizing drug sentencing, but would “push back” on your postulates regarding legalization of marijuana. As a parent I would be far more comfortable with a reasonable, rational policy towards all drugs, recognizing modern social mores. As a taxpayer, I’m all in favor of “luxury taxes” on alcohol and cigarettes being extended to what would quickly become a large legalized trade in marijuana (should it be legalized).

  2. Thanks for joining in the conversation. Your point that marijuana isn’t too much worse than alcohol is well taken. But the come back is: We have enough trouble with alcohol and tobacco — why add another dangerous substance that people need to figure out to relate to?

    My main point about marijuana legalization is that it is a distraction as an issue — the major costs (jail time, violence) derive from cocaine and heroin and that’s where we need to focus our conversation.

  3. Really enjoyed the article Mr. Brownsberger. Let me, however, address a few issues that I came across.

    I think it is very important to not group marijuana in the same class as an opiate and an amphetamine. Noting that the “war on drugs” has been a failure of epic proportions does not mean that heroin and blow should be legalized. I think your stance of reforming mandatory minimums (you need look no further than the disparity in punishments between crack and powder cocaine to see there in lies the real issue) is a perfect way to begin the process of removing socio-economic discrimination from the justice system.

    However, I believe that you fail to address the very issue with which your consultants were coming to you with concerns.

    Spin it any which way possible and marijuana still will not fall into even the same league as heroin and cocaine. If Fenway park is cocaine and Yankee stadium is heroin then marijuana may as well be Tropicana field from the days of the “devil rays”. You have told me yourself that you are in favor of medical marijuana. So my question to you is after all the political spin is set aside do you really think that there should still be criminal penalties on the books for marijuana possession and cultivation? noting that the bay state dedicates nearly 20% of its 117 million dollars worth of doc resources to crimes related to marijuana……..

    1. I don’t buy the stat that we devote 20% of DOC resources to Marijuana. Almost no one in DOC facilities is there for Marijuana — that’s what my study in the 90s showed.

      I definitely favor medical marijuana, but I don’t feel strongly about general marijuana legalization. Even before last November we were rarely punishing it seriously, so it doesn’t amount to much of a change. On balance, I don’t like legalizing it because I feel we have enough trouble with the alcohol and tobacco.

        1. Interesting point regarding how we treat marijuana under our laws differently than heroin and cocaine but that line of thought brings up another interesting point.

          I dont think its the disparity in how we treat the drug under the law, its more that leaving criminal penalties on the books for marijuana is a path way for socio-economic discrimination. For that matter, all criminal penalties for narcotics provide law enforcement officials with the perfect opportunity to propagate socio-economic discrimination.

          Weighing the cost benefit of drug legalization and regulation, as you said, must be done on a case by case basis. Obviously the cost of legalizing heroin far outweighs any potential benefit in judicial discrimination. (Side note: This country and its treatment of opiates seems to be going down a slippery slop. We need look no further than any of the numerous prescription opiates available on the market today. these drugs cost alot of money in co-pays and are habit forming drugs which are vastly under regulated in my opinion. (See Michael Jackson case: over dose of the prescription opiate demerol.)This under regulation gets people hooked and when they cant afford the “legal” opiates they turn to heroin. Should we really be punishing people for using a street drug that is no different than its Rx counterpart?) Cocaine legalization would also probably cause more harm than good. (Side note: legal amphetamine salts (adderol, cocnerta, riddilin, etc) pose just as much if not more harm than cocaine)

          For the 20% doc revenue state I’ll reference this BU study done on the 2000 Mass census and audit.

          One final note; why do we jail out citizens? rehabilitation restitution are obviously main factors in our judicial logic, yet our society today seems hell bent on restitution and seems to throw republication to the wind.

          The recidivism rate in this state (specifically at Suffolk county house of corrections)is nearly 30%. I think we can all agree that figure is at the heart of the issues presented here. Should we not strive to lower that number and if so isint regulation and legalization a far better solution than continuously pumping needed funds into a police departments and a doc which do more harm than good to our society?

          1. The study you cite is consistent with the earlier study I mentioned. It says that 0.1% of DOC prisoners are there on marijuana charges. See page 4. DOC is the state prison system. The percentage is a little higher 3.7% at the county level. Almost all of these offenders are dealers.

            But your point about the differential socio-economic impact is totally well-taken. But most of those impoverished young men who are going to jail are going to jail for cocaine and heroin offenses. That’s why I think we need to focus on moderating the sentencing practices for cocaine and heroin offenses.

  4. Somewhere some woman is going to wish tonight that her husband lights up a joint instead of hitting the booze because he’s never hit her while high. Somewhere some college kid is going to wish she didn’t drink as much which resulted in a date rape. Somewhere someone’s mom is getting a call because the dealers just drilled her kid down because of turf wars to protect the 70% of their revenue which comes from marijuana. And somewhere some doctor is telling a guy that he has destroyed his heart with 25 years of alcohol and his only hope is a transplant – he’s wishing he lit up more often and kept the bottle in the cabinet.

    Unless you are about to make alcohol illegal then providing a SAFER alternative is the way to go. All the people above beg you to do so.

  5. For the record, I’ve continued to evolve on this issue: I don’t feel a need to defend marijuana prohibition and would vote for repeal of it if people were ready for it and there were some consensus on it. But it isn’t a priority. The important practical issues are sentencing policy for cocaine and heroin offenders.

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