Monday, January 23, 2012

Rhode Island legislator arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana

Robert A. Watson, a former Republican minority leader in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, was arrested for driving under the influence and possession of marijuana in South Kingston, RI over the weekend. It is reported that he has entered in-patient substance abuse treatment. He is awaiting trial for similar charges in East Haven, CT from last year.

On some listserves there has been mirthful commentary about his arrest, particularly about the report that he was released from custody at 4:20 a.m. Sunday.

This case is sad. It is likely that Representative Watson has an alcohol problem and may have a marijuana addiction. I don't believe it is appropriate to make fun of people who have illnesses, disabilities or addictions -- even if they are politicians.

There are more than 10,000 state legislators in this country. Almost certainly hundreds have alcohol abuse problems. It would be statistically amazing if many legislators did not have other chemical addictions.

Legislators are at high risk for alcoholism. During legislative sessions they work very long hours, away from the structural support of home and family, and are constantly being invited to receptions and meals at which free alcohol is offered and being consumed. The job is stressful and full of conflict. The decisions and votes are frequently not easy, and are always subject to intense public scrutiny and criticism. Let's remember that legislators come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We should not be surprised that many use marijuana and other controlled substances illegally.

Some drug policy reformers might look at a Republican marijuana-using legislator and assume quite naturally (relying on the statistical evidence of Republican opposition to marijuana law reform) the he opposed marijuana law reform and is thus a hypocrite. Perhaps so.

But we should not be shocked that many legislators who use marijuana might oppose marijuana law reforms that might appear to be contrary to their direct personal interest. An adult marijuana smoker might believe that decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana may encourage teenagers to use marijuana, and feel that potential result outweighs the benefits to adults. Drug policy reformers may be convinced that this is the wrong conclusion to draw, but the belief is not irrational.

In fact, we should expect that legislators make legislative decisions for public policy and political considerations.

Consider an analogous situation. Assume there is a vote on other legislation that would personally benefit a legislator as much as a bill to legalize their marijuana use might. Would we desire that legislators vote for legislation that benefits them personally, let's say financially, even if the legislator felt the bill was not in the public interest? Of course we would not!

It is easy for reformers to gloat and smirk when a Republican legislator is arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. But it is not especially mature or thoughtful. I expect joking from professional comedians who are always hungry to make a joke at the expense of some public official. But I don't see that gloating about such sad circumstances is either politically sophisticated or beneficial to the drug policy reform movement.

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