Note: I started writing this over a week ago, and I haven’t had time to finish until now. Any references to relative time (today, yesterday, etc.) should be treated as having been written on Sept. 26, 2010.
I came across this AP News article today via Yahoo!’s news feed. For those of you who do not wish to click through, the article summarizes some of the conflicting positions on California’s Proposition 19 ballot initiative, which would legalize the production (25 square-foot plot) and possession (up to an ounce) of Cannabis for personal consumption by adults age 21 and over, leaving regulations governing taxation and sale up to individual counties or municipalities.
Let me start by saying I’m a strong supporter of legalizing marijuana as a recreational drug; in fact, I’m opposed to vice laws altogether. The most-effective role of public policy in social regulation is limited to guaranteeing the civil liberties and safety of the citizenry and ensuring equal access to public spaces for all persons, as in the cases of civil rights legislation, personal-safety protections, environmental regulation, or property law (given our capitalist system; I’ll save my critiques of said system for another time). Vice laws serve only to limit personal behaviors that have no direct impact on those around us. Certainly there are socially-undesirable behaviors that are prohibited by vice laws; heroin addiction, for example, can be devastating for both the addict and hir social group. The problem with laws that prohibit these behaviors is that they prohibit them for everyone when it may be perfectly possible for one to engage in the behavior in an innocuous or even productive/beneficial fashion.
By way of analogy, let me give two examples of social policy issues, one each from Democrat and Republican platforms. For you Liberals out there: consider the case of sodomy laws. In the view of a significant portion of the public (and certainly a majority at one time), sodomy, especially in the context of homosexual couples or heterosexual couples who are not married, is both personally-destructive (sends you soul to Hell) and socially-damaging (normalizes “sin”, damages the moral fabric of society, upsets the gender norms that are a part of our social construct, puts us at-risk for divine destruction, etc.). We know, of course, that sex acts besides penis-in-vagina intercourse are not intrinsically damaging; any “problems” associated with such behavior are more the result of how the individuals engaging in these behaviors are socially-constructed and therefore treated by the population. The acts themselves do no direct harm to either the persons involved or those around them. The same is generally true of marijuana consumption; yes, smoke inhalation is somewhat damaging, but so is breathing car exhaust or playing football – I don’t think the protection-from-self-harm argument really holds water. If people want to harm themselves in one’s view (and in the fundamentalist Christian view, sodomy is certainly self-harm) it’s really not the place of the legal system to stop them. If a behavior is unacceptable in a particular community, then the proper way to deal with it is through establishing social norms that discourage the behavior, especially since another community may not consider it problematic in the least. The problem with drug laws is the same as that of sex laws: they legally-enforce a contextually-dependent social norm, which may only be relevant to a minority culture.
For you Conservatives: consider gun laws. Forget the Second Amendment for a minute (irrespective of Supreme Court rulings, the actual wording pretty clearly refers to gun ownership within regulated militias and not gun ownership per se). Guns are extremely dangerous, even when used properly; the whole point, after all, is to deliver physical trauma to the target. Many, many people use guns to hurt both others and themselves, including children. Why, precisely, is marijuana any different? Much of the rhetoric I hear opposing marijuana use could be equally applied to gun use: children who don’t know any better may use it in self-destructive ways, people can’t necessarily be trusted to use it responsibly, irresponsible use is bad for others or society as a whole. This comes down to the same personal-responsibility argument often deployed in support of gun ownership: guns have socially-innocuous, socially-responsible, and personally-beneficial uses; just because it’s possible to misuse a gun does not mean we should make it illegal for everyone to own a gun, we should just make it illegal to misuse a gun. The same argument can be applied to marijuana: let people smoke it all they want, as long as they don’t get behind the wheel while high, for example. With sex, we criminalize rape and assault, not (generally) consensual behaviors (I’ll save my critiques for another post); with guns, we criminalize murder and assault, not hunting or self-defense. With recreational drugs, we criminalize all use (excepting the few legal recreational drugs: OTC medications, a few of which can be used recreationally; alcohol; nicotine; caffeine; peyote, depending on jurisdiction), irrespective of the actual impact; in a nominally free society, this makes no sense.
In addition to the theoretical social-policy arguments for drug legalization, there are many pragmatic factors: eliminating the public-funding burden of prosecuting and imprisoning non-violent drug users, generating tax revenue through direct “sin taxes”, generating income-tax revenue by shifting a black-market or grey-market economy into the legal economy, elimination of violence resulting from the smuggling or sale of illegal drugs, and increased safety of the drugs themselves via safety/purity regulations and labeling requirements. I’m probably missing some, but you get the point, I hope.
Even the “protection of children from the evils of drugs” is better-achieved through legalization and regulation (I’m opposed to age restrictions on drug sales too, though I’m willing to take this one step at a time); it is significantly easier for high-school students or underage college students to buy marijuana than alcohol, for example. Why? Because weed dealers don’t check IDs. They have no incentive to discriminate among their customers, because they’re already breaking the law; they have no marijuana license to lose. Liquor stores, on the other hand, have everything to lose, and they’re much easier to police, given their public faces and permanent locations. One also institutionalizes the production and distribution of a drug through legalization, which means you have far fewer people circumventing safety and sales regulations. The smugglers and grey-market dealers suddenly have to compete with a (much cheaper) legal product and service industry. This is why you don’t see bootleg cigarettes and why cigarette smuggling (which DOES occur, between states with widely disparate taxes) is a minor problem at best: the profit incentive is so marginal when weighed against the potential consequences that it’s only worth the risk to very few (and generally not-terribly-bright and therefore easy-to-catch) people. As it stands, drug production/smuggling is one of the most lucrative, if risky, occupations, particularly for those on top. This results in an inordinate concentration of wealth and power in the hands of criminals who are often indifferent to the social impacts of their actions; I’m not a huge fan of the concentration of wealth in corporate coffers, but I think it’s vastly preferable to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a sociopath with no legal oversight whatsoever.
Ultimately, our drug laws are anachronistic holdovers from an era of religious law in which a central Church wanted sole control over ecstasy and mediated control over all aspects of life. They have no place in a secular, pluralistic society, particularly not one nominally predicated on individual freedom. Yeah, drug abuse is a bad decision in almost every case, and drug use may not even be such a good idea, but it, like so many others, is a bad decision with an impact limited to the decision-maker. The whole basis of personal freedom is the ability to makes choices about one’s life and actions, free from legal coercion, even if they’re bad choices. We have to be able to make bad decisions as well as good; otherwise we’re not really making decisions at all.