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Gay electoral milestones in the US election

7 November, 2012 Leave a comment

Last night saw the re-election of the first US president to have declared their support for equal marriage for gays and lesbians while in office. During Barack Obama’s first time, he has had the best record of any president to date, overseeing the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, the end of the ban on travel and immigration based on HIV status, allowing transgender people get passports with their current gender. As far as foreign policy goes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made very clear that the US would promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people across the world.

The clearest watershed for gay rights, though, were the votes on equal marriage. Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first places in the world to approve of equal marriage by popular vote. In all other places, whether other US states or eleven countries, the change was made only through the courts or the legislature. Thirty-three times before yesterday, in different US states, votes on marriage had gone against equality. Now we see that the popular mind-set is shifting. Voters now see our relationships as no different to those of any other couple who wish to marry. Voters in Minnesota also defeated a proposal to amend their state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

These votes sent a clear message to American reactionaries that the tide has turned. It will embolden those across the country seeking equality. Next step will be for the Supreme Court to rule on the offensively named Defense of Marriage Act, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has indicated will be considered soon, probably this spring. I think given the makeup of the court, it’s likely to be repealed, and marriages between same-sex couples in the eleven states which allow it will be recognized by the federal government. Meanwhile, the push state-by-state, through courts, legislature and polls will continue.

For us too in Ireland, these campaigns can serve as a model for us, as we’re likely to face a referendum on equal marriage in the coming years. Our countries are different, yet there would be still so much in common with such a campaign. We can look to Maine and compare a campaign that worked with one that didn’t.

Last night also saw the first openly gay Senator elected, with Tammy Baldwin for Wisconsin, who had served in the House since 1999. She beat former governor Tommy Thompson to the seat.

In the House, the long-serving Barney Frank retired this year. Frank served on the Massachusetts delegation since 1981, and in 1987 became the first openly gay member of Congress. Earlier this year, he became the first member of Congress to marry someone of their own sex.

Jared Polis, who has served for Colorado since 2009 achieved another first, who is raising a son, born last year, with his partner, another Congressional first for an LGBT member. David Cicilline was the first openly gay Mayor of a state capital, for Providence, Rhode Island, and served in Congress since 2011. Both were re-elected last night.

There were also some new LGBT members of the House. Mark Pocan succeeded to Tammy Baldwin’s old seat in Wisconsin. Sean Patrick Maloney won in New York and Mark Takano won in California. And while the race is still tight, Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona looks set to be the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

All the above are Democrats. One Republican I was hoping would be elected and take his name in that list was Richard Tisei in Massachusetts, but he wasn’t elected. He ran a good campaign, but it’s tough for a Republican to fare well in Massachusetts. The list of gay, lesbian or bisexual members is becoming numerous and closer to being proportionate, so that each one is less significant for that fact, and soon enough, we’ll stop bothering to list them off. But the milestone of a Republican openly gay on their election will be one to mark.

Moreover, the votes in the four states on marriage in particular will focus the minds of Republican leaders and strategists. Their accommodation to reality will be late, but is inevitable. This is of course but one of a number of issues where they will have to articulate views closer to the median voter to avoid being seen as dinosaurs, and losing winnable Senate seats, as occurred this year in part because of the comments on rape and abortion from candidates like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Rick Berg.

The views of the public of equal marriage are shifting so quickly that by 2016, I can’t see the frontrunner of the Republican candidates going anywhere near a National Organization for Marriage pledge. I could see them answering a question, stating a preference for civil unions but acknowledging that different states are finding different approaches, something not too far from Obama in 2008. And by 2020, I could easily imagine it not being an issue at all for the Republican candidate to be on record in favour of equal marriage, if a Supreme Court ruling doesn’t recognize it as a right across the United States before then.

In any case, last night’s results were definitely quite a step forward from four years ago, when the fervour Obama’s election was somewhat dampened by California’s support of Proposition 8.

Endorsements from abroad

6 November, 2012 Leave a comment

In considering who to declare our support in US presidential elections, even those of us who do not have a vote at all put ourselves in the position of a voter in the tipping point state, in this case calculated by Nate Silver to be Ohio. This is all-in-all quite a restrictive parlour game.

Like most others watching this election, I have a clear preference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to start a presidential term on 20 January. But this preference should not mean that we approach the given candidate obsequiously, nor that I believe that therefore all Americans should vote for that candidate. Let us judge the candidates fairly, and consider this a time for a review of Obama’s term of office to date. As foreign observers, who are not Democrats or Republicans, we should the question of which candidate we prefer more disinterestedly than I think becomes the norm. Even in our own countries, we shouldn’t end up thinking about our support for political parties in the way of a sports fan following their team, but there is much less of a cultural excuse for it watching from afar.

I supported Barack Obama ahead of the vote four years ago. What has occurred since that could lead me to change my view of him?

My criticism of President Obama is based on his policies in the conduct of war and the protection of civil liberties. While this is something that I have paid attention to from a number of sources over the last year, such as Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf, I recently read Gene Healy’s False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency, which catalogues the increasing powers of the presidency under President Obama. As the name suggests, Healy is not an alarmist who believes that this is in any way unique to Obama, but rather that this is a continuation of a trend he explored in great detail in The Cult of the Presidency, written towards the end of President George W. Bush’s time in office. For example, on the question of healthcare, why should we be surprised that Obama sought to do what every Democratic president since Truman also did.

But on the question of civil liberties in particular, Obama has not governed as he campaigned. Most prominently, he has not closed Guantanamo Bay. But while that may be ascribed to the lack of Congressional support, this cannot be said in other areas. Healy quotes New Republic legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen as predicting in February 2008 that Obama would be the “first civil libertarian candidate”. Yet by 2010, policy analysts of contrasting perspectives were admitting how things had changed from that perspective. James Carafano, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, described Obama’s security programs as Bush clones, while Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Union for Civil Liberties, was quoted as being disgusted by Obama’s policies on civil liberties and national security issues.

George W. Bush was rightly and widely criticised for instituting indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. Yet the voices of criticism have been much softer since it was revealed earlier this year that Barack Obama had what has been dubbed a ‘kill list’, under which people identified as terrorist combatants, including American citizens, have been targeted for elimination by drones. This involved the death of a 16-year-old American citizen, which a spokesperson for the Obama administration defended. Of course a state must protect itself from attack, but not at the cost of the abandonment of jury trial after centuries of practice. And Obama has bended the constitutional requirement to require Congressional approval for war, aside from a direct attacks. ‘War’ has been redefined to exclude situations where no American soldiers are at risk, so that a foreign country can be bombed without the need for approval. He approved a National Defense Authorization Act, considered worse than infringements on civil liberties than under Bush.

Given this glimpse into these abuses of his power, I find the continuing fawning attitude towards Barak Obama a bit much, especially from those watching from outside the United States. There is no need to us to view their foreign policy in any way but critically, or to fret fearfully that such criticism would lead to a worse alternative in office. It really isn’t a good enough excuse to point out that Mitt Romney would be worse.

Because there is no reason to expect that Romney would not worse in many such respects. The saving grace from the point of view of conduct of war with the likely re-election of Obama is that Democratic-leaning civil libertarians will feel more comfortable being critical of him, and if his record does not improve, and that it could start a movement that is not based around an individual politician as was the case with Obama in 2007 and 2008, but around a set of ideal and principles.

As well as his likely policies on civil liberties and the conduct of war, Mitt Romney would win the presidency as the standard-bearer of a Republican Party that isn’t at all shy about showing its nasty party, and while some like to imagine that he would govern as a moderate, he has made it very difficult to allow himself to move away from hard-line positions on social questions. He has donated to the National Organization for Marriage, which campaigns against equal marriage across the United States, and the group have charted his record on this count favourably. In his time as Governor of Massachusetts, he had a poor track record on a range of LGBT issues, whether in education or with families of gay couples. It would be a marked shift for gay people from the first president to have declared his support for equal marriage in office; as would Paul Ryan be a shift from a vice president in Joe Biden who recently described transgender discrimination as the ‘civil right issue of our time’.

Those who dream of a ‘Moderate Mitt’ recall his time as governor of Massachusetts, where he co-operated with Democrats. But there he had to, given the scale of their majority, and he was not working with a Republican Party driven at a national level with a particular agenda. We should expect the Republicans to retain their majority in the House, and there is no reason to expect that Romney as president would in his own right moderate their actions, tho this may occur with a majority-Democratic Senate.

Romney seems a comfortable leader of a party that tacks to extremes, which ostracizes those such as Indiana Senator Richard Lugar for co-operating with Democrats on standard bills, in favour of a candidate in Richard Mourdock who went on to discuss a pregnancy from rape as part of God’s plan; as well as the most famous incident of Todd Akin, there is also Rick Berg, Senate candidate in North Dakota, who proposed a bill that would give a life sentence to women who avail of abortion, whatever the circumstances; Romney also supports the tenor of many of the most extreme policies against immigrants, even if partially moderated during the debates.

I do think these things matter, even for us here, because of the United States position as a within the western cultural world.

While the jibes at Romney’s wealth during the campaign might have been amusing, they were not relevant to his ability to govern. What is relevant is the contempt he showed for those below a certain income by saying that the bottom 47% saw themselves as victims.

Could Obama have done a lot better on the economy? Probably, but on the one hand I don’t trust the instincts of a man looking for a trade war with China, and on the other, while it was disappointing that Obama didn’t embrace the reforms proposed by the Simpson–Bowles Commission, I do think that could be a likely outcome to the deadlock of an Obama second term with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

So what am I hoping for with tonight’s result? I would like to see Obama re-elected as president. Yet his record in foreign policy, the war on terror and related matters are such that I would also like to see a strong vote for decent third-party candidates outside of swing states. Most Americans do not live in a state that the candidates consider worth spending time or resources, such that MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who has lived in Massachusetts, New York and California, urged voters to support third-party candidates where it makes sense.

O’Donnell discusses here two issues which were covered in the debate between Dr Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gov. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Mayor Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, those of the drug war and indefinite detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism. On many such issues, the first three at least felt like they could have been comfortable in a debate between European political parties, and as a European observing the powers wielded by what is still the world’s most powerful country, I have no issue judging the election on such a standard, given that such voices do exist in the United States.

There are two of these minor candidates on the ballot in nearly every state, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. Between those, I would favour Johnson. It is rare that a minor party candidate has significant relevant experience, and Gary Johnson served two successful terms as Governor of New Mexico, from 1995 to 2003. In economic terms, while I would not favour the extent of the swingeing cuts Johnson proposes, I would be happier to give a nod to that than to the skepticism to free trade of the US Green Party.

Were I an American, active in a Political Action Committee, this might be a hard stance to negotiate, to endorse Obama for president, but a vote for Johnson in most states. Not an impossible one, to be sure, but definitely one that it simpler from Ireland, as I’ll be watching results come in over the course of the night.

Other ballots and contests

And there will be other votes too. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about the 2009 vote on equal marriage in Maine, and what we can learn from it here. Maine is voting again tonight on the same question, and between it, Washington and Maryland, we are likely to see at least one state vote in favour of equal marriage. This will be highly significant, as they would be the first in the world to allow equal marriage by popular vote, and instructive for us here, as we are likely to have a campaign on it in the coming years.

Also from a gay point of view, I hope to see Tammy Baldwin elected as Democratic Senator for Wisconsin, defeating former Governor Tommy Thompson. She would be the first openly gay US Senator. There’s Richard Tisei, vying for a House seat in Massachusetts, who would be the first Republican openly gay on his election. And another Republican who I’d like to see in on similar grounds is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida, the only Republican member of the House to support the Respect for Marriage Bill.

In nearly all other cases, I’d imagine that I’d be rooting against the Republicans, tho I sure there are some honourably exceptions. I’m indifferent, for example, in the case of Linda McMahon, Republican Senate candidate in Connecticut. While not the best of them, I think the Republican caucus better for having some of the old Yankees within it. I might have classed Scott Brown in that mould before he named the reactionary Antonin Scalia as his model Supreme Court judge. And of course you’ll always find a smattering of races where the Democrat would be just clearly far worse, such as in Tennessee, where local Democratic party disowned their nominal candidate Mark Clayton, after his work with an anti-gay hate group came to light.

When should politicians lie?

15 May, 2012 1 comment

I was quite sceptical of Barack Obama from the time he announced his candidacy for the presidency in early 2007. I supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, tho did support Obama against John McCain. I was never quite convinced by his rhetoric, and his inability to manage expectations played a part in subsequent disillusionment with his presidency. For example, making a commitment just after taking office that he would close Guantanamo Bay within a year, something that has yet to happen, was an odd political move. I would have liked to have seen a very different, market-based to health care reform, which could have tackled long care costs better than the Affordable Care Act, and to be clearly constitutional to boot. He also exhibits brazen self-regard, more so than we usually see from politicians. So I’m a natural cynic when it comes to Obama.

But tho I began my post here on Thursday welcoming President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality by referencing his changing positions since 1996, as of now, I don’t see that it makes sense to critical of him. Let’s assume that Obama’s position since 1996 has been favourable towards allowing gay couples to marry, and “to fight all efforts by those who would stop this”. If to be the president who would during his first term in office endorse same-sex marriage, maybe he had to be a candidate who opposed it. His official process of evolution on the question mirrored the evolving views of the median American voter.

Some have been critical of Obama for not going further, and stating clearly that he would work to see change on a federal level. On KCRW’s Left, Right and Center this weekend, I heard Robert Scheer present the case that his failure of courage undermined the case he was making; to be consistent he should insist on immediate action. But that would be getting ahead of himself in a way that would be counter-productive. He has already ordered his department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for federal purpose as only that between a man and a woman; he has given his support for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would conversely recognise at a federal level any marriage legitimately performed at a state level.

While we expect political leaders to be ahead, the leadership on moral rights cannot all come from the head of the executive. We can expect them to play their part, but they lose their effectiveness if they are too many steps ahead, even if they are right.

The same panel on Left, Right and Center included David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who welcomed the move, and hoped the Republicans would see reason on this question sooner rather than later, but feared a decision at a federal level would lead to decades-long division as in Roe v. Wade. The pace of the demographic shift makes that seem unlikely to me, and I would welcome a Supreme Court decision that affirmed equal protection to gay and lesbian couples under the Fourteenth Amendment. But it is fair that President Obama wait to see how that judicial process is to proceed before publicly intervening again.

Consider that ten years, it was still criminal in 2002 for two men to have sex (and in practice, as Dale Carpenter recounts, simply to live together as a couple); to borrow a phrase used in the New Yorker Political Scene podcast, imagine trying to convince someone that year that President Barack Hussein Obama had announced that he supported gay marriage, and political analysts were not sure if it would benefit, hurt him, or make no difference. It would seem like something out of a Stephen Fry alternate history novel.

While writing this piece, I came across an historical analogy for Obama’s evolution on gay rights, that of President Abraham Lincoln on slavery. Steve Chapman on Reason.com makes reference to the great Frederick Douglass,

The former slave and black leader Frederick Douglass might have understood. What he said of Lincoln’s approach to slavery could also be said of Obama on same-sex marriage: ‘Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent. But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.’

With Chapman, I think Barack Obama is taking the right approach, and he will be deserve to be remembered in years to come as the first president to take a stand on what would later be assumed so obviously to be right. And he could not have achieved this without being coy about his true feelings on the matter.

<b>Edit:</b> I was asked on Twitter to clarify exactly when I think politicians should lie. It is specific to a time of cultural change on a within a country where the president would hurt the momentum of their own cause on a question. I’m not talking about Barack Obama pretending to be a sceptic about international trade during the 2008 Democratic primaries, or about Enda Kenny and James Reilly pretending to be committed to Roscommon hospital in the last general election.

Great News: President Barack Obama openly supports equal marriage for gay couples

It is great news that President Barack Obama again holds the position he held in 1996, saying, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” (with video here). Having publicly opposed equality in the intervening years, it is a major statement that he joins Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton on the side of equality. Whether or not this was prompted by Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on Sunday, he is stating what most presume he believed, but it makes a difference that he sees it politically possible to do so.

 

With national opinion polls showing majorities in favour of equal marriage, there was no reason left for him to pretend not be on the right side of history on this question. Most imagined that a year or two into his second term, that he would announce that his position had finally evolved to support equality for gay and lesbian families. But he could reasonably have been accused of political cowardice; this way, he enters his second term clear on this policy.

Chris Cilizza in the Washington Post has analysed the political implications, predicting that there will be some downside for him on this. I’d broadly disagree. I think most Americans for whom opposition to equality in marriage is a salient issue would already be voting against Obama. He has made a commitment to equality for gay people part of his first term, from not defending the Defense of Marriage Act to his part in the end of Don’t Act Don’t Tell in the military. Some may point to polls against equality in swing states; what matters though, is for how many wing voters in these states is this a swing issue. Ultimately, no one should have been in any fundamental doubt about where he was on the spectrum.

For politically cynical among the Democrats, this will help his funding, bring out some voters, and stop others from who voted for him in 2008 casting votes instead for the Libertarian, Green or Justice Party candidates. But it will also force Mitt Romney to talk about this issue, which he really doesn’t want to do, but has signed a National Organization for Marriage pledge to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, banning same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I think the advantage in this regard would have been greater still had Obama announced this during the primaries, while Rick Santorum would have been there do highlight the religious fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party. On the whole, I think the political implications of this are marginal, though Obama may lose North Carolina.

Someone remarked to me yesterday evening that Obama in 2008 will presumably be the last time a Democratic candidate for president to be publicly opposed to allowing gay couples to marry. Could we see 2016 as the equivalent election for Republicans? Given the strong trend which is only gathering momentum, it wouldn’t surprise me, though I would certainly say so in the case of 2020.

Again, back to Barack Obama last night, this is indeed great news. This is not just about the electoral cycle. It is about every gay person in the United States, particularly those in difficult situations because of their sexuality, who knows that the president is a clear ally, finally the fierce advocate he promised he would be. And this will change minds. There are people till yesterday who could say to themselves that domestic/civil unions/partnerships must be all right, as it was the position of even Barack Obama. Now they will have to think again. This will change culture, which is just as important as changes in the law, the one complementing the other. The United States is a good few steps away now from achieving proper equality for all its gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender citizens. But with POTUS on board, it has moved a major step in that direction.

Obama should support equal marriage in his State of the Union address

24 January, 2012 2 comments

This is not 2004. In that year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favour of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, the first US state to allow this. It was only a year after Lawrence v. Texas, in which the US Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. In that year’s presidential election, the Republican incumbent George W. Bush proposed a Federal Marriage Amendment to amend the US Constitution to define marriage as between a man and and a woman, prohibiting states from enacting laws to contrary effect. It would have been the second Amendment to restrict the freedoms of US citizens, the first being the 18th Amendment in 1919, introducing prohibition (repealed in 1933). President Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, a Senator from Massachusetts, supported civil unions, while opposing both equal marriage and any proposal to define marriage at a federal level. Referendums to amend state constitutions to define marriage as only between a man and a woman appeared on the ballot in a number of states in November 2004, driving up conservative turnout, and contributing to the vote of Bush against Kerry, in what was a close election.

But a lot has changed in those eight years on the issue of gay marriage. Then it seemed destined to be a nice feature of certain liberal enclaves, whether in the US or in Europe. Now it seems an inevitability, only a matter of time across most of the developed world. Last year, public tracking polling by Gallup showed for the first time that a majority of Americans supported legal gay marriage, with 53% in favour and 45% against. The figures in 2004 were 55% in favour, and 42% against. The figures in 2004 were 42% in favour and 55% against, and they remained steady till last year. An annual tracking poll should be reliable, but in case it looks too sudden to be credible, it was corroborated by similar figures from the Washington Post (53%) and CNN (51%).

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Does it mean anything for 2012?

President Obama is clearly in a safer place in his re-election campaign after the killing of Osama bin Laden over the weekend. It removes the critique that he is soft on foreign matters, such as that of former Sen. Rick Santorum, who claimed recently that the president does not believe in American exceptionalism. As far as most Americans care about the war in Afghanistan, and even to a certain extent in Iraq, it was about getting bin Laden.

OK, Barack Obama is now quite likely to be re-elected, though there’s little chance he’ll keep the lead of 56 to 38 he polled yesterday. While he will have this in the background, the Republicans will soon begin to focus entirely on the economy. Compare this to George H. W. Bush, who seemed a shoo-in in 1991 after his Gulf War victory, but was beaten by Bill Clinton in 1992.

And what does this mean for who the Republicans are more likely to choose? Again, this isn’t clear. Tyler Cowen reckons that they will give up on trying to win from the centre, pick an extreme candidate and lose badly. Sort of like how they picked Barry Goldwater in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson seemed unbeatable. The Economist’s Democracy in America blog on the other hand that it will move them towards the centre, with former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman in the strongest position. It really is far too early to look at poll numbers for any of these to asses any such impact.

Possibly the biggest thing this will do for President Obama, if even at a subliminal level, is to enhance his reputation for being cool-headed, which was one of the things during the final months of the 2008 election that strengthened him against John McCain, in his reactions to events such as the financial crisis or violence in Georgia. People will remember that he kept a poker face on Saturday night while he was roasting Donald Trump at the Correspondents’ Dinner, throwing his attempt at a campaign completely out of the water. That he dealt with the serious business of the budget and possible government shutdown, with the frivolity of whether he would release his birth cert, all while knowing this was coming down the line.

 

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Debate on cannabis and other drugs

14 February, 2011 Leave a comment

Paddy Power are now putting Luke “Ming” Flanagan as one of those likely to get a seat in Roscommon–South Leitrim, behind sitting Fine Gael TDs Frank Feighan and Denis Naughten. When he came to prominence in the 1999 European election, he was regarded as a fringe candidate, but is now a well-liked Mayor, and since the retirement of Michael Finneran, a Fianna Fáil Minister of State, it has become ever more possible that he could be elected. He can no longer be seen as a single-issue candidate, but if he is elected, there could be a worthwhile debate on the issue.

Since his election, President Barack Obama has taken online questions annually. On each of these three occasions, a question on the continuing illegality of cannabis came on top. In 2009, he laughed at the question, asking what it said about the online audience. In 2010, he ignored the question and answered the second most popular topic, on net neutrality. This year, when confronted with a question on the subject from a former police officer, representing Law Enforcers Against Prohibition, he eventually has had to concede that it is a legitimate topic for political debate, though he waffled in his response.

There is a large element of hypocrisy in Western politics on this question. Just as it is commonly known that during the US Prohibition Era (1920–33), public figures as high as Presidents, notably Warren G. Harding (serving 1921–23) felt free to privately drink alcohol, many public figures today will happily consume drugs quite a bit stronger than cannabis in high society. It is now almost customary for those seeking to lead their country to concede having taken drugs of one sort or other during the college days, from Bill Clinton not inhaling (actually because he took cannabis in cookie form), to Barack Obama, David Cameron and Brian Cowen more recently. Though somehow I doubt that Enda Kenny is carefully drafting a response to this question on his student days.

I fail to see how the current policy is either morally justifiable or effective in its aims. Those in favour of retaining the current regime of prohibition are arguing that all consumers of illicit drugs, however infrequently, should have a permanent mark on their criminal record. In a free society, we allow people take risks that do not harm others in the process. We allow people to go mountain-climbing or paragliding, despite the possibly fatal risks. We also allow people to smoke and consume alcohol, which are more harmful in some respects than certain prohibited substances. The effects of smoking a joint, leading a group at a party to mellow out, compare favourably the effects of drink which we see in the street violence in town on Friday night after closing time.

Freedom also has the record of working. I don’t seek to diminish the serious effects of drug addiction, particularly in drugs like heroin, but in Portugal since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, the negative effects of drug use have decreased. They took the decision because the drug problem had got to the stage where it seemed the only sensible way to address the problem, and ten years later there is no movement from any leading political party or group to reverse the change. Glenn Greenwald, in a report for the Cato Institute, outlined the effects of their decision. For all substances, deaths from drug use have diminished, or at most remained steady. For example, deaths from heroin and other opiates stood at 281 in 20001. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalization, to 133 in 2006. Decriminalization hasn’t eliminated these problems, but it has made it easier to address them. This wasn’t just part of a trend, problems from drug use were increasing until they took the decision in 2001. Drug users are no longer stigmatized as criminals, making it more socially acceptable to seek help. Resources that had been devoted to prosecuting addicts could now be devoted to helping them. Drug usage rates continue to be lower in Portugal than under policy regimes with greater degrees of prohibition.

Some emphasize the economic benefits of legalization, that the transactions would be taxed, but I would see the primary benefit as the reduction in the influence of criminals and the potential for improvement in the lives of those who suffer. While a policy that has worked in one jurisdiction cannot necessarily be transplanted to another, at the very least, it should be treated as a respectable subject for debate, and that either decriminalization or legalization should be be on the table.

I’ll close here with a clip on the subject from the free-market economist, Milton Friedman. I would not be in complete agreement with Friedman, but he does present a clear case against prohibition. Among other things, he proposes the hypothesis that crack, possibly the most lethal of drugs, would not have been developed had it not been for the regime of prohibition.

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