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Respect for the Law Going up in Smoke
by Scott Shore
20 July 2003

The conservative - not libertarian - argument for legalizing marijuana.

Thoughtful conservatives have long agonized over the issue of the legalization of marijuana. For libertarians the issue has always been rather easy. Their position is that any adult individual has the right to ingest any drug provided that the user is fully informed of the nature of the substance and that only criminal behavior per se should be punished. Conservatives have a harder time being as cavalier about the issue for a number of sound reasons.

Conservatives have always maintained that there is a symbolic value to the law that, while perhaps unenforceable, still maintains social standards of preferred conduct. It is for this reason that most conservatives have been outraged over the extinction of laws regarding sodomy. Such behavior is in opposition to Judeo-Christian "higher law" and our society can not afford to appear to endorse deviant behavior by indifference to it. While virtually no conservatives I know believe in a "Vice Squad" knocking down doors to observe the sexual behavior of individuals in their homes, the law still stands as a reminder of the moral values of our society. There is very little today to prohibit homosexuals from forming contractual relationships without religion or the state giving it the status of "marriage." By the affirmative act changing prohibitions against certain relationships or behaviors, society at least appears to endorse such behaviors as morally neutral. There are many laws regarding "private" behavior that are more or less enforceable. Some vices such as child pornography (even explicit pornography in general) should indeed be crimes. In contrast to the libertarian argument, conservatives would argue that such liberalization leads to a weakening of the moral fiber and social constraints required for civil society.

The argument becomes considerably more difficult with marijuana. The case against marijuana is fairly straightforward. Clearly marijuana can impair judgment and become psychologically addictive and lead to irresponsible behavior or perhaps even personality changes. Also, marijuana can interact with certain prescribed pharmaceuticals and have dangerous consequences to physical or mental health. The major problem with all of the above truisms is that they apply equally—if not more so—to liquor. For many of the reasons that we now make possession or selling marijuana a crime, the Prohibitionists outlawed alcoholic beverages. The result was dangerous bathtub gin, a great industry for mobsters and a general disrespect for the law. "Devil Rum" was seen as the first step to depravity and ultimately to the soul’s perdition.

Certainly the Prohibitionists did have a point. Alcohol does lead some people to alcoholism with its consequent social wreckage (broken families, lost jobs…etc.). Moreover, behavior "under the influence" often becomes lewd or violent. Driving while intoxicated has caused literally millions of deaths on our roads and highways. Today a strong case could be made for outlawing cigarettes. After all this is a legal substance that is known to cause cancer, emphysema, and increase the risk of many other diseases including heart attack. A strong public relations campaign has reduced cigarette smoking overall, although a surprisingly large number of teenagers pick up the habit. The fact of the matter is that both liquor and cigarettes are perfectly legal in the United States and most countries in the world. No amount of lecturing or finger wagging has stopped the usage of either drug.

Now let us turn to the dreaded cannabis. The assumption by many is that the legalization of marijuana will create a country of "potheads." I am not certain we haven’t come pretty close to that situation in any case. (I have a personal theory that this explains the behavior of the Democratic caucus and other members of the Loony Left---they are just on a constant "buzz" that "transcends" reality.) In any case, it seems to me that marijuana use is fairly prevalent in our schools, neighborhoods and places of work. We do not wish alcohol to be in the hands of minors because we believe that they can not use the substance in moderation and responsibly. I happen to think the same is true of marijuana. We should not allow minors to ruin their lives by falling into habits which dull their abilities to concentrate and make decisions at a critical point in their lives.

There are indeed very few arguments against marijuana that can not be used against liquor or cigarettes. The hypocrisy is glaring and undermines respect for the law. As it turns out, laws against hard drugs are very important indeed as a protection against society. Those who sell cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin…etc. should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. These drugs are truly a lethal social disease that permeates all levels of society. To put marijuana in the same boat as hard drugs is to deligitimize the entire corpus of law against drugs and to make a mockery of the War on Drugs. By filling prisons with marijuana users along with serious criminals and dangerous drug poison peddlers is a farce. Some have argued that marijuana is a "gateway drug" but this is largely because the sellers of marijuana have an incentive to create greater addictions among their customers.

Currently all the money made by marijuana goes to criminal cartels, terrorists and sundry other lowlifes. I would rather Phillip Morris take up the product and have proper licensing of establishments that sell marijuana like liquor licenses than have it sold on the streets by drug pushers. I would like to see a "carding" procedure for minors as we now have for cigarettes and liquor. I would rather the money be collected as a "sin tax" than by some Latin American cartel or Middle East terror ring.

While we may bemoan the fact that people appear to have a habit of using recreational or mind-altering substances since the dawn of man, conservatives take man as he is not how we think he should be. This "New Man" ideology is the arena of utopians---a dangerous crowd that spawns socialists, fascists and a variety of other unpleasant ideologies and movements.

Unlike libertarians, we do not throw up our hands and give in to any new behavior. We still try to uphold social morals and standards, but there does come a time to recognize intractable facts regarding human nature and try to channel them in the most socially responsible way. I think the time to fight the Culture War is now, but we should view marijuana as a diversion of our efforts. Legalize, regulate and tax marijuana and let’s just call it quits.

Scott Shore is a political commentator and management consultant in Providence, RI.

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