Keep Guns Legal, Marijuana Illegal, Sheriffs Say

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Keep Guns Legal, Marijuana Illegal, Sheriffs Say

by Ari Armstrong, October 30, 2006

The position that guns should be legal and the plant marijuana illegal seems peculiar. One item is associated with the majority of U.S. murders; the other is associated with the munchies. Yet that's the position that many conservatives take, despite the fact that gun prohibitionists and marijuana prohibitionists generally make the same sorts of arguments and rely on the same premises. So I asked two of the participants at Governor Owens's October 27 press conference to explain how they reconcile the two positions.

Sheriff John Cooke avoided serious consideration of my questions, but he did offer brief comments. He said that he supports the individual right to keep and bear arms.

I asked, "Why do you not also endorse the individual right to control their own bodies with relevance to taking this herb marijuana?"

Cooke answered, "Marijuana's a dangerous drug. That's why."

I asked, "Guns are dangerous too, aren't they?"


"Guns are not dangerous?"

"In the wrong hands."

Sheriff Fred Wegener also briefly stated his case:

Me: "Do you endorse the individual right to keep and bear arms?"

Wegener: "Sure."

Me: "So you grant, obviously, that guns are dangerous."

Wegener: "Well, sure.

Me: "The argument that I buy is that individuals also have the right to control their own bodies in terms of what substances, say alcohol, tobacco, or the herb marijuana, that we put in our body... Why is there a difference there?"

Wegener: "I guess more, the mind-altering capabilities of something like that. And then I've got individuals that want to operate motor vehicles. Like individuals that want to be pilots, individuals that..."

Me: "It would still be illegal to drive under the influence."

Wegener: "You're going to have those individuals now that you're going to have to deal with? I mean, it doesn't seem to me to make any sense."

Me: "The bigger problem, though, is drunk driving, right? But alcohol is legal... So wouldn't your arguments also endorse the renewed prohibition of alcohol? I mean, if the problem is people driving under the influence of these substances."

Wegener: "I mean, responsibility. I think what you're talking about, and what's kind of going around, is responsibility. People taking responsibility for their own actions. I mean, that's probably the most key thing."

Preach it, brother.

So Cooke argued that marijuana is dangerous, while Wegener argued that it is mind-altering and that people who drive under the influence of it are dangerous. Can those three arguments justify marijuana prohibition?

Is it true that marijuana is dangerous? Yes, in the sense that it can be dangerous for some users in some circumstances. Similarly, the following items and activities are also dangerous: guns, promiscuous sex, dating, hamburgers, ice cream, beer, cigarettes, sky diving, driving, plastic surgery, reading, et-cetera.

Using marijuana is not inherently dangerous, unlike many other legal activities such as sky diving and smoking cigarettes. Indeed, unlike many other legal activities, marijuana can be enormously beneficial to some users for certain medical conditions. For instance, marijuana is very effective for some people for controlling tremors or pain. (A legal derivative of marijuana is available by prescription, and obviously the legalization of marijuana would threaten that unjust monopoly.)

For most people who use marijuana recreationally, the drug carries minimal risks. The risks of using marijuana are often lower than the risks of using the legal (and in some cases subsidized) drugs alcohol and tobacco.

As Owens pointed out, inhaling marijuana smoke is unhealthy. But this is not a serious argument for marijuana prohibition: people have the right to do things that undermine their health. Owens conveniently omitted two facts. First, people who smoke marijuana usually don't inhale very much smoke relative to, say, smokers of cigarettes. Second, marijuana can be consumed in other ways. It can be brewed as a tea, baked into pastries, or vaporized. That eliminates the harm from smoke.

Some items are inherently dangerous, but their use need not threaten others. For example, smoking cigarettes is inherently unhealthy, but people have a right to smoke them on their own property and, when by invitation, on the property of others.

Other things can be either dangerous or beneficial. Driving falls into this category, as does drinking alcohol and using marijuana. Driving recklessly or for stupid reasons is dangerous. (Driving recklessly is also properly against the law because it inherently threatens others.) Driving safely for good reasons still carries some risk, but it is on net useful. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol promotes health; drinking large quantities of alcohol in a short period undermines physical health and promotes irresponsible behavior.

Note that most properly legal recreational activities carry some risk. Taking a Sunday drive in the mountains creates the risk of suffering physical harm or death in a wreck. Playing football carries the risk of blowing out a knee. Owning a gun need not be inherently risky, as following the rules of gun safety prevents harm, yet some gun owners do not consistently follow those rules, sometimes resulting in disaster.

The point is that people have the right to engage in risky activities, for recreational purposes, insofar as they do not violate the rights of others. Using marijuana obviously and easily falls into that category. The risk of the drug does not justify prohibition. Marijuana prohibition inherently violates people's basic human rights.

Let us take one more example. Does anyone doubt that adultery is dangerous? It can result in severe health problems and even death. It is associated with extreme violence and murder. It can cause severe emotional and psychological harm, both for the adulterers and their families. It can break apart families and ruin marriages. I submit that using marijuana is much less dangerous than committing adultery.

Yet would anyone at Owens's press conference advocate the renewed prohibition of adultery? I hope not. Even though few activities are more harmful and dangerous than irresponsible sex, consenting adults have the right to control their own sex lives, and the state has no right to forcibly interfere. We have the right to control our own bodies.

Not everyone agrees. Leviticus 20:10 states, "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." Yet I sincerely doubt that any of the speakers at Owens's press conference would advocate so much as a fine for the offense, even though adultery is an extremely dangerous activity.

So the argument that the danger of marijuana justifies its prohibition fails.

Of course, the fact that people have a right to do something doesn't imply that it's a good idea. People have the right to watch eight hours of television per day, but that's extremely harmful. People have the right to join a cult. People have a right to keep and bear arms, a potentially dangerous activity, but the benefit of gun ownership is high in terms of promoting self-defense. People have the right to read books of their choice, and often (but not always, in the case of really bad books) this promotes real personal values. Adults have the right to use marijuana recreationally, but I see no objective benefit to offset the expense and potential harms. I can think of a lot better ways to spend time and money. Morally, I think recreational use of marijuana is problematic at best. Legally, it's clearly an individual right.

What of Wegener's point that marijuana is mind-altering? So is alcohol. So are many other legal drugs. So is sex. So is shooting a gun. Just about any activity will generate different brain patterns. Reading a book is a mind-altering experience.

But Wegener means that marijuana alters the mind in a particular way that makes users less responsible. That can be true, as it can be true for alcohol. Yet using marijuana does not deprive the user of subsequent choice. As with alcohol, the dose matters. However, while large doses of alcohol are associated with violence, large doses of marijuana are more associated with sitting on a couch or sleeping. But in both cases, users can choose their doses. Somebody who takes a "hit" or drinks a cup of marijuana tea in a private living room can maintain both control and safety, as with somebody who takes a shot of liquor.

I've been around marijuana users. In many cases, I wouldn't have known they had used the drug except that they told me or had dry eyes and a heightened appetite. In my (limited but I think representative) experience, users of marijuana control their behavior at least as well as users of alcohol do. It makes even less sense to prohibit marijuana than it does to prohibit alcohol (and in both cases prohibition is a violation of rights).

So the fact that marijuana is "mind-altering" also fails to justify the prohibition of marijuana.

Finally, Wegener claims that the danger of people driving under the influence of marijuana justifies its prohibition.

However, when asked about the possibility of alcohol prohibition, Wegener invokes personal responsibility instead of prohibition. Wouldn't the same principle apply in the case of marijuana?

(Nearly) everyone grants that driving under the influence of anything, or simply driving dangerously for whatever reason, should be against the law. That's no reason to prohibit potentially intoxicating substances.

The general principle is that people should not be legally punished because of a dangerous crime they might potentially commit. People should not be fined, arrested, or jailed for purchasing, possessing, consuming, or selling alcohol, for example, just because some people drive while drunk. Instead, the appropriate policy is to crack down only on those who drive drunk or otherwise dangerously.

Here are some other examples. The government should not prohibit extra-marital sex, despite the possibility that some people might knowingly pass on a venereal disease (a crime). The government should not prohibit guns, even though some people use guns to commit serious crimes, including murder. The government should not prohibit recreational driving, even though some some people drive recklessly (a crime).

The fact that some people drive under the influence of alcohol or marijuana is no reason to prohibit either drug. It is a reason to prohibit driving under the influence.

The only legitimate purpose of law enforcement is to protect individual rights. In the context of gun use, Sheriffs Cooke and Wegener defend individual rights. In the context of marijuana use, Sheriffs Cooke and Wegener violate (and promote the violation of) individual rights, for no good reason.

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