Getting back to basics for the new year (and beyond)

We’re all used to politicians overusing hyperbole, but I think we’ve achieved some sort of a new record with the first public health epidemic of 2020.  Attorney General Aaron Ford called this crisis, “an entirely new threat to public safety.” To address this problem, our government wants to spend $1.7 million dollars on data analysis and marketing.

The emergency?  Six Nevadans went to the hospital after vaping something funny last year.  Most of those were using some sort of marijuana product, and it’s a good bet that the products being used by most were purchased… informally.  While 52 deaths nation-wide have been attributed to vaping certain types of products, none of them has been in Nevada.

It’s not that people getting sick or injured with a product isn’t a problem for those individuals.  But when we compare that to the hundreds who die from drug overdoses, car accidents, pedestrian collisions, or suicides in this state, it hardly looks like an epidemic.  

That’s especially true when one considers the fact that most illnesses attributable to vaping nationwide have been from black market products.  You know, the kind of thing people (especially young people) start looking for when the legal products have a bunch of extra taxes on them so they become way more expensive.  It’s a good thing Nevada hasn’t levied a major tax increase on vaping products which might drive people to cheaper, but less savory alternatives… Oh, except we did.  

I’m not here to defend vaping.  I think it looks silly, and while not nearly as dangerous as smoking, inhaling any non-atmospheric chemicals can’t be awesome on the old lungs.  But if we’re going to get all excited to ban and regulate things, and spend nearly two million bucks on public health every year, I can think of a lot better uses, starting with funding mental health or drug rehabilitation programs.  Six hundred twenty seven Nevadans committed suicide in 2017, and psychostimulants like meth are competing with opioids to see which can kill more of us.  Six people in the hospital out of however many hundreds of thousands of vapers live in our state hardly seem worth our notice, or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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The government certainly has a role to play in public safety — that’s sort of the entire premise of “civilization.”  But that doesn’t mean everything government does is a solution, nor does it mean the government has its spending priorities in order.  The government cannot – and most assuredly should not – try to solve every problem.  

Certainly knee-jerk regulations and poorly considered public service announcements are a bad way to go about things.  So why does it happen so often? The answer is that politicians want to look and feel decisive, even if that means they don’t spend the necessary time thinking things all the way through.  

A few months ago, my home state of South Dakota made national news (in a bad way) by rolling out an anti-drug ad campaign announcing, “Meth: We’re on it.”  That lead balloon went over just as well as you’d think, although to be fair to South Dakota, at least they only wasted half a million dollars.  So many of the things our government does is no less a waste of time and money, even if it’s not so meme-worthy and therefore not so noticeable.

Our regulatory schemes have proven embarrassingly but predictably inadequate in a lot of areas.  The marijuana industry – supposedly one of the most heavily regulated in the state – has been best by scandal and corruption.  This happened because the government tried to micromanage everything about the product, from production to sales to direct manipulation and control of the market itself. This was all done in the name of public safety, of course, except that the actual safety inspecting fell so thoroughly through the cracks that no one knows how much mold consumers are smoking, and no one can trust the labeled THC content of their favorite strain.  

Closer to home for me, the state is still struggling to figure out how to “fix” indigent criminal defense services, particularly in rural counties.  Instead of allocating funding directly for the purpose of attracting more attorneys to take on those sorts of cases, we instead created a new bureaucracy so poorly planned out that they don’t even have office space to work out of.  I know several of the members of this new “oversight” board, and know them to be smart, talented, and experienced criminal defense lawyers.  They have been tasked with coming up with standards that already exist. But how much better off would our state’s indigent criminal defendants be if these people were being paid to represent indigent people instead of trying to “oversee” other lawyers?  It’s just a shame someone didn’t warn the Legislature what a waste of time and money this would wind up being…

It’s not that warning against tainted vape products is bad, or that government shouldn’t have health inspectors of products people ingest, or that we shouldn’t address real problems in our criminal justice system.  It’s that time and time again, the actual efforts to do these things are so hamfistedly executed, and done at the expense of far more effective tactics or cost-beneficial priorities. It’s not about philosophy, it’s about competence.  The more government tries to do, the less good it gets at everything – including the core functions like police, courts, education, infrastructure, and sanitation.  

We’re safe from any new legislation in 2020, but there is plenty of governing to be done.  In 2020, I hope our government officials learn from these lessons and narrow their focus. Show us that our institutions can execute their missions effectively and competently, and that our dollars are being spent where they can statistically do the most good, not on whatever shiny new “crisis” happens to seem trendy for the moment.  A humbler, fill-the-potholes approach will be a boon to us all (including politicians seeking re-election) in this new decade. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007.  He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016.  By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno.  Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.