Marijuana and a Free Society

Not all Americans are celebrating the recently passed ballot measures relating to marijuana—especially some conservatives.

People in the states of California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. People in the states of Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana. People in the state of Montana voted to loosen restrictions on medical marijuana. Only in Arizona did an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana fail to pass.

In an article for Public Discourse (“an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies”) written a few weeks before the election (“No, We Should Not Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use”), conservative Tim Bradley opined that “for both philosophical and practical reasons, it is essential that the measures for legalization this November be defeated.” The article was reprinted a week before the election by the conservative news site with the new title of “No Society Is Better Off with Legalized Marijuana.”

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Bradley asserts that even if psychoactive substances (substances “introduced into the body for the purpose of affecting how one feels”) like coffee, pain killers, tobacco, alcohol, antidepressants, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin “can be used morally, they can certainly be abused and used immorally.” And I agree with him.

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Unlike some conservatives, Bradley concedes that “when it comes to marijuana use, it is possible that there may be legitimate medical reasons to ingest the drug.” In such circumstances, one may morally use marijuana. For a second time, I agree with him. Although I don’t agree with him that individuals should not be allowed to “grow their own supply of the drug,” marijuana should only be used by those whom are issued prescriptions, and prescriptions for marijuana should be restricted “to cases where there is no less mind-altering medical treatment reasonably available to the patient.”

Bradley also maintains that “most marijuana use today is not for medical reasons.” Marijuana is more typically used “either a) with the intention of achieving an altered state of consciousness by ‘getting high’ or b) with the intention of ‘getting high’ as a means to a further end that is perceived as good, such as building community or having a religious or aesthetic experience.” Again, I agree with him.

Bradley further posits that “both of these uses are morally impermissible.” Yet again, I agree with him.

So, you ask, what is the problem?

Bradley wants the government to legislate morality. He supports the federal government’s war on drugs. He wants private vice to be a crime. He supports a nanny state. He wants the government to lock people in cages for possessing or distributing too much marijuana. He also supports the federal government’s marijuana laws: “Regulation of dangerous drugs is not an instance where federalism demands that the individual states be allowed to set their own rules over and against federal policy.”

Although some states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and many states have legalized the medical use of marijuana, the use of marijuana for any reason is still a violation of federal law. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the

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Controlled Substances Act. As such, the government believes that marijuana, like heroin and LSD, has “a high potential for abuse” with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” There is also “a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.”

Under federal law:

Possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. For a second conviction, the penalties increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Subsequent convictions carry a 90-day mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Distribution of a small amount of marijuana, for no remuneration, is treated as a possession. Manufacture or distribution of fewer than 50 plants or 50 kilograms of marijuana is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. For 50-99 plants or 50-99 kilograms, the penalty increases not more than 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million if an individual, $5 million if other than an individual for the first offense. Manufacture or distribution of 100-999 plants or 100-999 kilograms carries a penalty of 5 – 40 years in prison and a fine of $2-$5 Million. For 1000 plants or 1000 kilograms or more, the penalty increases to 10 years – life in prison and a fine of $4-$10 Million.

And it gets worse. The penalties are doubled for anyone who distributes more than 5 grams of marijuana to someone under age 21 or distributes marijuana “within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, public housing or within 100 feet of a youth center, public pool or video arcade also doubles the possible penalties.” The sale of drug paraphernalia is punishable by up to three years in prison. One can even get the death penalty for manufacturing, importing or distributing marijuana if “the act was committed as part of a continuing criminal enterprise”

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and certain conditions are met.

This isn’t Malaysia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia we are talking about, this is the United States, “the land of the free”

But if the recreational use of marijuana should be prohibited because it is immoral, then what about other immoral activities? Adultery, fornication, sodomy, masturbation, swinging, topless dancing, pornography—should they be prohibited as well? What about lying? Once it is argued that the state should criminalize private immorality, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the state not criminalizing any immoral activity.

As Ludwig von Mises wrote in his monumental Human Action:

Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.

And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.

As soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail.

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Nevertheless, according to Bradley, marijuana should be prohibited because it is different from alcohol, because of child safety, and because legalizing it won’t make us freer.

Bradley says regarding alcohol and marijuana:

The most common use of alcohol, by contrast, is not akin to that of marijuana use. Many people consume alcohol frequently without intending to get drunk. While excessive drinking is a serious problem for some people, the central case of alcohol use is not one of abuse, as in the case of marijuana use.

Bradley is right: marijuana is different from alcohol—it is far worse. As I said in a speech last year on “Christianity, Libertarianism, and the Drug War”:

Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. Alcohol abuse can be a contributing factor in cases of cancer, mental illness, anemia, cardiovascular disease, dementia, cirrhosis, high blood pressure, and suppression of the immune system. Alcohol abuse is a factor in many drownings, home accidents, suicides, pedestrian accidents, fires, violent crimes, divorces, boating accidents, child abuse cases, sex crimes, and auto accidents. In fact, the number one killer of young people under twenty-five is alcohol-related car crashes. Numerous studies have shown that smoking marijuana is much safer than drinking alcohol. In fact, a study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, ranked alcohol as the “most harmful drug,” beating out heroin, crack cocaine, and ecstasy.

It is alcohol that conservative drug warriors like Bradley should be calling on the government to outlaw.

Bradley wants “a child-oriented approach to policy” that takes “their needs into account” because “children are the most vulnerable and impressionable members of our society.” The government should “inform children of the health risks of marijuana use, stigmatize its use, prevent children from gaining access to the drug, and foster an environment in which parents are aided and not thwarted in their efforts to raise their children in a drug-free community.” In other words, it is the job of the government—not parents, family members, communities, churches, and non-profit agencies—to keep kids off drugs. Bradley’s rationale is no different from that of Hillary Clinton and the Children’s Defense Fund.

The idea that legalizing marijuana won’t make us freer is ludicrous. Tell that to the tens of thousands of Americans who are arrested every year merely for possessing small amounts of marijuana. According to FBI crime data, “643,000 people were arrested for marijuana in 2015” and “574,000 of these arrests were for possession rather than distribution and sale.” Arrests last year “for possessing small amounts of marijuana exceeded those for all violent crimes.”

Bradley concludes that “no society is better off with legalized marijuana.” He might as well have said that no society is better off without a nanny state or no society is better off without a police state, for that is what happens when a government declares war on the growing, possession, use, and sale of a plant. In a free society, marijuana is legal, unregulated, and treated just as any other commodity. Marijuana prohibition is inimical to a free society.

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