24 June 2010

Drugs and Normality

A couple of weeks ago, the EPIK teachers on Jeju got this email:
Hello EPIK teachers,
  It has been brought to the attention of the Jeju POE that an EPIK teacher in Jeju has been arrested for the importation of drugs and connections to organized crime.
In case you need reminding, you are in a foreign country which has a zero tolerance policy regarding drugs of any kind. The minimum penalty you can expect is a jail sentence.
  Ria Kim
The next week, we got another:
Dear all EPIK teachers,
  I am writting to you all again regarding the issue of drugs.
You may have heard but I can confirm that a second person has been arrested in connection with bringing banned substances into Korea.
  Ria Kim
Naturally, everyone was curious about who it was. But even more people were curious about why? What was worth the risk? How could this seem like a good idea?

In part, it's kind of understandable for an American not to take buying pot as a serious crime. Speaking with Lizzie about it today, I reflected about the state of marijuana laws in the United States. In far too many places, smoking pot is largely winked at. It's "illegal," but not really illegal. If you do it, you get a slap on the wrist or a small fine.  Or maybe it's allowed for "medical purposes" that wouldn't hold up under the slightest scrutiny.  Many, many people think it should be legal, and most law enforcement organizations have no intention of spending their resources on it.  It's just something a cop can bust you for if they have a reason to suspect something more serious or if they don't like the way you look.

So we have an activity that is technically illegal but is becoming widespread nonetheless, with something just shy of the consent of law. This criminalizes a large group of people, and gives police enormous and unjust latitude - if everyone is doing something illegal, then the cop can arrest whomever they please.  Further, this practice breeds a contempt for a "technical" law that can carry over to other laws... or other places, as we see in Korea.  In many places in America they wink at possession of marijuana as a "crime," but in Korea it is taken extremely seriously.

Matthew Yglesias writes about the matter of pot laws in a post called "When Laws are 'Laws'":
But what I think what we’re seeing here is the wrong-headed notion that an appropriate way to express disapproval of a behavior is to simply make it illegal but then wink and nod on enforcement, as if this is some sort of middle ground (this is also the Obama administration position on federal marijuana law). ...

If you don’t think a law should be enforced, you should support repeal of the law. All this “compromise” accomplishes is granting police almost unfettered discretion. If smoking pot is still technically illegal, police can enforce the law when they choose, targeting certain people for arrest while turning a blind eye to others engaging in the exact same activity. If you don’t want children to smoke pot, start a public awareness campaign and encourage parents to discuss drug use with their kids. Don’t keep marijuana use illegal in a confused attempt to conflate moral objection with criminal sanction.
So it's not really so hard to understand the actions of people who buy drugs in Korea, even if it's a poor choice to make. When for years something has been "illegal," people react with shock and disbelief when it's taken seriously. It's akin to jaywalking; technically "illegal," but penalizing it regularly or harshly would seem like a miscarriage of justice.

Don't be too quick to judge, in other words.

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