Will Colorado Legalize Marijuana?
Those who argued that medical marijuana was a precursor to a broader legalization of marijuana were correct. Now, Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) plans to run an initiative "that would make legal the private use and possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for any person 21 years of age or older." Of course, the fact that medical marijuana was part of a conscious plan to loosen the laws even more in the future does not invalidate the legitimacy of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes -- that was a good idea on its own merits.
And those who criticized Denver initiative 100 on the grounds that a state change would be necessary to alter the policy might have learned to be more careful what they wish for.
Passage of a state-wide initiative is a long shot, but at least a large minority will vote for it if it gets on the ballot. (I also predicted the Denver initiative would fail, and I was wrong.) I endorse the proposal, though obviously I would favor the complete repeal of marijuana prohibition. Why? It's a matter of individual rights. Adults have the right to use, grow, sell, and distribute marijuana (and hemp, the industrial variety of the plant used in manufacturing). As philosopher Michael Huemer writes in The New Prohibition (page 139), "The idea of a right to use drugs derives from the idea that individuals own their own bodies. That is, a person has the right to exercise control over his own body..."
An ounce is better than nothing (even though Colorado law already imposes light sanctions for possession of minor amounts), but if an adult wants to keep a ton of marijuana in his or her garage, that's really none of the government's legitimate business. Of course, some home uses may be legitimately restricted by voluntarily entered associations, which essentially create multi-party contracts that should be enforced through the courts. Such contracts already usually ban direct out-of-home sales of all items. (Also, I support laws pertaining to minors, on the grounds that minors do not acquire their full set of rights until they reach adulthood.)
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has weighed in on the matter. According to Alan Gathright's December 28 article in the Rocky Mountain News, Suthers said he welcomes a "head-on, outright debate about legalization."
Gathright quotes Suthers, "But, my personal opinion is it would be terrible public policy to legalize possession of any amount of marijuana. The information that we now have is that marijuana is a dangerous drug."
But Suthers's argument is ridiculous. We also have information that fat, sugar, fast cars, skiing, and football are dangerous, yet Suthers has not advocated prohibiting any of those items or activities. Is marijuana dangerous? Sure, if you try to operate heavy machinery while under its influence -- something that is and will remain illegal. But the same can be said for many legal drugs.
Just using the drug isn't that dangerous. Bill Ritter used marijuana, and that didn't stop him from leading the Democratic Party into this year's gubernatorial race. Perhaps the most harmful aspect of using marijuana is the smoke inhalation, something that can be avoided by taking it in ways other than smoking it. (Paul Armentano and Keith Stroup address other claims about the danger posed by marijuana in an essay for The New Prohibition.) There's nothing about the potential harmfulness of marijuana that undermines the individual adult's right to use it.
Even though the logic is perhaps too subtle for many nanny-state conservatives, the position that the state ought not prohibit marijuana is perfectly compatible with the position that the non-medicinal use of marijuana is or can be immoral.
Gathright records a fascinating exchange between Mason Tvert of SAFER and Suthers.
Tvert said, "I'll gladly challenge the attorney general to defend current public policy that pushes people to use a deadly drug (alcohol) when they otherwise might use a far less dangerous drug (marijuana)."
To which Suthers replied, "The premise of this group seems to be that marijuana is better than alcohol, therefore it's OK. I just don't buy that. I never engage in the moral relativism that this is a lesser evil... therefore we ought to promote this evil."
However, Suthers evades Tvert's core question. Given that, objectively, alcohol is at least as dangerous as marijuana, why doesn't Suthers support the prohibition of alcohol? Suthers is the one engaged in moral relativism, for he apparently believes that one drug should be legal and the other prohibited, for no good reason other than society says so. Suthers's position is fundamentally morally relativistic.
Besides, nobody is saying that "we" or the government should "promote" marijuana. The government should take no position on the matter, but should instead concern itself with the protection of individual rights.
All that said, Suthers's critique of Tvert's position is correct in one respect. Tvert cannot logically argue that marijuana use should be legal just because alcohol use is legal. If you take some sort of social utilitarian or moral relativist position such as Suthers takes, a case might be made that one drug should be legal and the other illegal. For example, simply the fact that more people use alcohol implies that enforcement of alcohol prohibition is more difficult (not that prohibition of marijuana has been remotely effective). Tvert's case just isn't sufficient. What's needed is a case for individual rights.
Both main Denver dailies editorialized against Tvert's argument. The December 29 Denver Post argues, "Mason Tvert, the group's executive director, once again is making the pitch that marijuana is a 'substance far less harmful than alcohol.' His assertion that people become alcoholics because marijuana is illegal is just as nonsensical now as during the Denver campaign."
However, it's completely reasonable to think that at least some people on some occasions substitute alcohol for marijuana because of the prohibition of the latter. Economist Jeffrey Miron writes in Drug War Crimes (page 11) that it may be the case that "drug consumers view non-prohibited goods as close substitutes for illegal drugs." He summarizes, "The existing evidence is not definitive, but it suggests a moderate degree of substitution between illegal drugs and legal goods, especially alcohol."
The January 1 Rocky Mountain News argues: "Nor do we follow the logic of those who cite the allegedly greater dangers of alcohol and tobacco as reason to legalize marijuana. Does anyone seriously believe that if tobacco had been outlawed many decades ago, before its risks were fully understood, that society would consider legalizing it today? Or that alcohol consumption would perceptibly decline if marijuana were legally available?"
However, while both papers are right to point to the inadequacy of Tvert's case (or at least his most widely publicized case), both papers also ignore the importance of the comparison of marijuana to alcohol (and tobacco). For instance, both editorials neglect to point out the obvious facts that alcohol was once prohibited, alcohol prohibition was a miserable failure, and today's prohibition of marijuana leads to similar problems of gang violence and lack of quality control of the drug.
If "tobacco had been outlawed many decades ago," no doubt it too would have become a black-market item associated with gang violence. Because of that, and because (though the papers apparently think the point too trivial to address) people have the right to control their own bodies, advocates of liberty would indeed fight to legalize it today. In response, people like Suthers no doubt would argue something like, "It would be terrible public policy to legalize possession of any amount of tobacco. The information that we now have is that tobacco is a dangerous drug. We ought not promote this evil."
The News also takes a cheap shot at Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Gathright interviewed Cole for a December 29 story. In its editorial, the News cited Cole without naming him: "[O]ne proponent of legalization declared 'there has never been a recorded case of a death from ingesting marijuana.' From an overdose? Perhaps not. But the idea that stoned motorists have never lost control of their vehicles partly as result of their condition -- to cite just one example of marijuana-related deaths -- insults voters' intelligence."
But Cole explicitly referred to "ingesting" the drug, not driving while under the influence. But what is the editorial's point? Obviously people do die from "ingesting" the legal drug alcohol. Some people die from overdose, while many more destroy their livers over a protracted period of abuse. Moreover, driving while under the influence of any drug is illegal, and nobody's arguing that should change.
The Post is mildly schizophrenic in its position on the drug war. In 2004 the Post gave a favorable review of The New Prohibition. But, while the Post doesn't exactly like the drug war, neither does it exactly want to get rid of it. The paper argues in the recent editorial, "We've said repeatedly that the national war on drugs is a failure. But that doesn't mean we favor mindlessly legalizing general marijuana use and possession at the state level. A more enlightened federal approach would include taxes substantial enough to discourage overuse of the drug and earmarking the resulting funds to anti-drug education and treatment of victims of more serious drugs such as cocaine. A reformed federal program could also require close regulation of marijuana production to keep potencies within specified limits and serious study of the health effects of smoking pot."
But why is Tvert's plan "mindless?" Even though Tvert's argument in its favor is incomplete, a solid, thoughtful case can be (and has been) made in its favor.
Presumably the Post is concerned about black markets, but what does the paper expect will happen with high taxes? And why should the government be involved with implementing a social-engineering scheme to determine "overuse?" That implies that the government shall also determine appropriate use. But by what standard?
And, while the Post does not come right out and say it wants to force some drug users into treatment ("drug use reeducation camps"), that seems to be the implication of the paper's position.
In many respects, the Post's position is collectivist, statist, and antagonistic to the notion that individuals have rights to control their own bodies and to exchange goods and services on a free market (subject only to government action against violence, fraud, and violation of contract).
Comparing the contradictory and nonsensical laws pertaining to alcohol and marijuana can be useful. But Tvert does need to broaden his case. Regardless of the current legality of alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco, all three drugs should be legal to use, sell, and distribute (excluding minors). People have a right to control their bodies. At the same time, the law should protect people from violence and negligent driving, regardless of whether some drug is involved. Prohibition blatantly violates people's rights, misdirects the resources of government, tends to corrupt the government and the law, and creates numerous harms such as gang violence and impure drugs. Prohibition is an immoral and ineffective policy that should be lifted immediately.