07 October 2009

Chong's Bongs and Laplace's Demons

From Dan Sarewitz over at CSPO Soapbox:
In 2003, Tommy Chong, a comedian who made a career out of acting (and presumably being) stoned, got sent to federal prison for nine months for illegally selling beautiful custom-made blown-glass bongs ( “drug paraphernalia”) over the Internet. The story is told in a surprisingly understated and affecting documentary entitled “aka Tommy Chong,” which came out a few years ago and just recently made it to my TV screen via Netflix (that miracle of converging information, communication, and transportation technologies).

Anyway, what I want to focus on here is the government rationale for busting Chong, because it pertains to many difficult social problems. DEA had to go to extraordinary gyrations (spending millions of dollars in the process) to entrap Chong (who was the prime investor in his son’s small boutique bong business). Then the helicopters and SWAT teams got to swoop in on Chong’s house and his little glass-blowing factory to ensure that no one would get hurt. The Justice Department also ensured that Chong would cop a plea and do jail time, rather than go to trial, by threatening to indict his wife and son if he didn’t plead guilty. Of course this kind of miscarriage goes on all the time. What’s really incredible is the skein of logic that the U.S. Attorney used to publicly justify Chong’s high-profile prosecution: by selling drug paraphernalia, Chong was supporting terrorism. After all, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda bankroll their operations in part by producing and selling opium and other illegal drugs, and such drugs require various tools for preparation and consumption, so those who provide such tools are key elements of the terrorist infrastructure. Chong’s bong business was supporting our most dangerous enemies, and he was morally accountable for terrorist attacks. Get it?

Gee, that reminds me of something else I just read (thanks to Thad Miller alerting me to this) on ClimateEthics.org, a Web site sponsored by Penn State University’s Rock Ethics Institute: “We now know from climate change science that people consuming a large amount of fossil fuel derived energy in some developed countries are already contributing to death and sickness in Africa, South Asia, and threatening residents of small island states in the Pacific . . . For instance, a village vulnerable to climate change impacts may be at risk because of unique local geographical features such as where the village is located in relation to upstream steep topographical slopes while being in a part of the world where more intense storms are predicted. . . And so those causing climate change are causing great harm to others . . . [E]thics unequivocally requires that those harming others stop the behavior causing great harm.”

My guess is that one could make pretty robust predictions about the ideological preferences of someone who believes that if you sell bongs, you are morally accountable for supporting terrorism, versus someone who thinks that if you drive a car you are morally accountable for killing poor people on other continents. Okay fine, but what about the CO2 emissions from bongs? What about the sponsorship of terrorism by nations that provide fuel for your car? I prefer my ethical responsibilities tied to simpler cause-effect chains. Otherwise aren’t we all guilty of everything?


  1. This one isn't as easy.

    Dan Sarewitz' position is also mine.

    But a social group may choose to recognize a 'harm' that has previously been imposed on others – through no previous conscious fault of the 'imposer' – as sufficiently onerous as to deserve, IN THE FUTURE, to be deemed 'criminal', subject to some kind of penalty (e.g., tax) to inhibit further harm.

    This is the AGW dilemma for which "Chong's Bongs" case is a poor model.

  2. Roger,

    Back in the 1980s there used to be a hard-core punk rock band that would swing through Charlottesville every once in a while and in their repertoire was a song titled "We are all guilty at McDonalds."

    Maybe they were on to something!


  3. "Otherwise aren’t we all guilty of everything?"

    Of course we are!

  4. I am being serious when I say that the Chong arrest tells me (what I already knew) that there is a genuinely evil, psychopathic streak in American society that doesn't exist in Britain.

    The same streak that runs drug policy, drove Bill Clinton to double the prison population and made one state treat a prisoner for mental illness in order to execute him.

    The Penn State insanity exists in the UK in the shape of George Monbiot and the loony you told us about who accepts global warming as his Lord and Saviour.