An Appeal to Skeptics of the Recreational Marijuana Initiatives
Voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada have already begun voting on whether to join Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Oregon, and Washington in legalizing marijuana for recreational use. These initiatives have combined the opposition in a group of odd bedfellows. Conservatives and Libertarians are rallying against these propositions and questions for vastly different reasons. Conservatives uphold the dangerousness of drugs and the crime they accompany. Libertarians say the initiatives do not go far enough and instead create more oppressive government while asserting to expand individual freedom. I make an appeal to these two groups to support the initiatives.
Since at least the 1950s, drug prohibition has been a hallmark of conservative politics. This was only strengthened in the 1980s when President Reagan declared drugs a matter of national security. The prohibition on drugs has not worked. This is not surprising as the US has tested prohibition before and it didn’t go well then either. In fact, the current drug prohibition has the same destructive problems alcohol prohibition had in the 1920s and 1930s. The free market is another hallmark of conservative politics and it tells an important lesson about prohibitions. Finally, if conservatives are concerned about safety and the use of marijuana, wouldn’t it be better for it to be regulated rather than done on the black market?
Alcohol Prohibition: Scofflaws, Gangsters, and Death
National prohibition of alcohol was supposed to protect the American people from the purported scourge of alcohol. Instead, it created a nation of people who either openly, or behind closed doors, flouted the law. At the time, they were called “scofflaws.” Not only did it make every-day people into law breakers, but it made gangsters into billionaires almost overnight. Legitimate liquor stores were forcibly closed by government agents. Instead of stopping the flow of alcohol, as intended, the supply simply moved to the black market.
Further, it prevented any sort of purity and health regulation upon alcohol. Whole new diseases in the US emerged overnight from Americans drinking adulterated bootleg alcohol. This bootleg alcohol was frequently made with dangerous chemicals including wood alcohol, that we now use as hand sanitizer. In 1933, the US finally reversed this course after realizing prohibition did not stop alcohol, it created scofflaws, enriched gangsters, and made Americans sicker.
These same issues are present in modern drug prohibition. According to the National Institute of Health, 22.2 Million every-day Americans use marijuana. In the current state of US law, every single one of these Americans are law breakers. Even in states that currently allow marijuana use, federal law still reigns supreme and confers this status upon these Americans. Just as Prohibition in the twenties made gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano into multimillionaires, the current drug prohibition has made drug cartels and street gangs into billionaires.
Drug prohibition has not made America safer either. Many innocent Americans are killed by street gangs defending drug territory and by law enforcement tackling drug trafficking. Drug users are not safer either as adulteration of street drugs, including marijuana, is common. The substance that is available to a marijuana user cannot be certified for purity or safety and is left completely up to the black market. Modern prohibition has failed just as it did back in the twenties.
The Free Market
Conservatives have long advocated for free markets. A basic tenant of free market economics is that demand drives the market. Demand is what shapes the market. With 22.2 million Americans consuming marijuana, there is clearly demand. Another tenant of free market economics is that supply will always rise to meet demand. This was proven in the twenties with prohibition and continues to be true with drug prohibition. If one accepts these tenants, one accepts that government, no matter the intensity of coercion applied, cannot stop drugs from entering the market. If this is accepted as true, perhaps it is wise to allow drugs but instead tax and regulate them to ensure their purity and to ensure that consumers have recourse against merchants who rip them off.
Libertarians have long maintained drug legalization as an important policy pursuant to an individual’s freedom to choose what they consume. One would then think these new initiatives would be a boon for libertarians. However, the libertarian party is actually opposed to some of these initiatives. This comes from the fact that, while the initiatives legalize marijuana for recreational use at the state level, many of them also introduce harsh regulatory and tax regimes around them. I would appeal that libertarians not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good in this situation.
There seems to be little appetite for a complete legalization and deregulation of marijuana in American society as of now. Even substances viewed as an unshakable part of American culture, such as alcohol, remain widely regulated despite being legal to possess and consume. A regulated and taxed legalization program, such as these initiatives, would move towards normalization of marijuana and away from the Reefer Madness viewpoint that currently pervades the thinking of some groups.
As Americans fill in their ballots whether by mail or in the polling booth, I appeal to conservatives and libertarians to consider supporting these initiatives. To conservatives, consider this an opportunity to protect Americans from the issues caused by prohibition and to allow government and legitimate businesses to profit rather than gangsters. To libertarians, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; consider these initiatives as a step towards a goal rather than a roadblock to perfection.