What are our laws based on?

In a wonderfully informative primer, Why is Marijuana Illegal? A brief history of the criminalization of cannabis, Pete Guither writes:
Many people assume that marijuana was made illegal through some kind of process involving scientific, medical, and government hearings; that it was to protect the citizens from what was determined to be a dangerous drug.

The actual story shows a very different picture. Those who voted on the legal fate of this plant never had the facts, but were dependent on information supplied by those who had a specific agenda to deceive lawmakers.

Pete has touched upon a very important issue: way too often, our legislatures pass laws that are based on faulty data. The Drug War is just the most glaring manifestation of this phenomenon. Our elected representatives have no clue about many of the issues that they are called upon to regulate. As the result, we get a bunch of nonsensical laws - laws that we have to abide by, laws that govern our daily lives, laws that can send a person to prison for many years for doing something that likely doesn't cause any major harm to himself or the society anyway.

Laws can be overturned if they are deemed unconstitutional; however, the Supreme Court exercises extreme deference to legislative opinion in most challenges. And, there is really no effective mechanism that would prevent legislatures from legislating on the basis of misinformation, hysteria or political agenda. As a result we are stuck with a plethora of laws and regulations that do more harm than good, and - most of these laws will be with us for a long, long time, simply because there is no mechanism that would evaluate them on the basis of effectiveness.

Well, you might ask, but what about the political leverage? If the society doesn't like a law, its elected representatives will be forced to repeal or amend it, simply because they would like to get reelected. Ideally - yes, that's how it should work. But, in reality, people simply don't care or are just as misinformed about the issue as their legislators. The Drug War amply demonstrates that the society may welcome the most egregious and punitive laws even when credible information is available that proves that these laws do more harm than good.

The mere list of ideas on how to insure that we are governed by laws enacted on the basis of the most accurate information available can balloon this post to a barely readable length. I will try to outline a few of them in later posts and I encourage you to also think about how our system may be improved. Think about this: if Congress enacted laws based on the best available information the whole Drug War quagmire might have been avoided.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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