2009/10/21

Disregarding the War on Drugs

WaPo columnist Kathleen Parker puts out a column about the recent decision by the Obama Administration to legalize state-run pot dispensaries, places where people who need the marijuana for medical purposes get to consume it in a non-partying, non-secretive, or back alley-type setting. A blogger calls the decision "one of those rare instances of unadulterated good news from Washington." Both writers feel that the War on Drugs started by President Nixon and continued up to the present day is a complete flop. The section of the public that agrees that the War on Drugs should be consigned to the dustbin of history is still in the minority (44% to the 54% that wish to continue battling on), but it's a large and growing minority.

A right-wing writer featured on Sadly, No! feels that it's awful for the Obama Administration to stop enforcing a law, that the law should be changed, rather than just ignored. He's correct in principle, but he ignores the fact that President Bush

...quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Seems as if the principle of not ignoring a law is one that applies exclusively to Democratic presidents, or IOKIYAR (It's OKay If You're A Republican). The absolutely huge difference between the Bush and Obama approaches to disregarding the law is that Bush did so secretly. The article linked to above was published in 2006, meaning it took from January 2001 to April 2006 for the public to discover that signing statements were being used in an unprecedented fashion. There's nothing wrong with putting out signing statements and just about every president has done so, but never before was a signing statement used to justify disregarding a law or a portion of a bill passed by Congress and signed by the President.

President Obama, on the other hand, very clearly and openly announced that he would take a more or less "state's rights" position and allow specific state laws to override a specific type of federal law. This is more along the lines of a "command decision" or in the case of civilians, an "executive decision." This is where a supervisor openly announces to anyone within hearing or to anyone who reads the memo that "I know I'm disregarding instructions, but I'm going to do it anyway."

Ex obiter dicta (A more or less related point): I've long felt that the "command decision" was the way to handle the "ticking time bomb" scenario where the protagonist has to decide between torturing a suspect or allowing a bomb to go off. Sure, okay, fine, make the call, but a command decision is not a "get out of jail free" card. If the protagonist is wrong and the suspect doesn't know anything, the protagonist should go to prison for having violated the human rights of the suspect. The moral error right-wingers make is in saying that torturing suspects should be a completely cost-free exercise, one where a wrong call should have consequences only for the suspect and never for the protagonist. The protagonist should be absolutely, positively 100% certain beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that torturing the suspect is the one and only way to get the desired information in time. If he or she is wrong, there should be meaningful consequences so that the decision is never taken lightly or casually.

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