The most exciting result from the recent elections was the legalization of the licensed sale and use of small amounts of marijuana for persons 21 and over in Colorado and Washington. Colorado’s measure seems to be a little better than Washington’s, but I will not nitpick details here. The overall theme is that liberty and civilization got a big boost.
I’ve written on this theme before, so I’ll be brief here. This is a list of harms caused by Prohibition:
1. It is detrimental, philosophically, to civilization. Your right to control your private sphere of action is a sine qua non of civilization. If the government’s scope of control is commonly believed to include your private activity, very few things will be considered outside its scope.
2. Prohibition has expanded police and prosecutorial powers in uniquely harmful capacity. There is almost nothing that law enforcement officers and prosecutors of all varieties haven’t tried to justify doing based on fighting the Drug War.
3. These expanded police powers are more likely to be used on the more vulnerable elements in society, and this is precisely what we see. The lifelong handicap to one’s job potential by being arrested even for simple possession at age 18 is big, and is bigger the fewer options one already has.
4. It creates and perpetuates massive opportunities for organized crime and violence. When people still demand the product in large numbers a market will function, but since contracts in this market are unofficial and legally unenforceable the consequences will be predictably bad.
5. It diverts billions of dollars annually from productive uses into destructive uses (see #3 and #4).
6. It prevents billions more from being capitalized in productive ways. Lots of people want to drink wine, so a multi-billion dollar legal industry exists to cater to their demands. If marijuana were legal, the market would be organized in a very different and more productive way.
7. It discourages “experiments in democracy” and raises the costs of reform by directing the entire effort at the federal level. I expect more states to follow Colorado and Washington’s lead in fighting back.
I could go on; this is simply a list off the top of my head. Medical marijuana reforms are good as small steps to a more rational and liberty-minded drug policy, but they are more fragile. Though it becomes harder to crack down on individuals for possession, the DEA and local governments can throw a massive wrench into the system simply by targeting dispensaries. In a situation where people can legally grow their own plants, this kind of crackdown becomes exponentially more difficult. Instead of a list of names and addresses, the places they want to bust could be anywhere. Needless to say, I expect these crackdowns to be gradually abandoned.
The federal government will be very concerned about this, as marijuana legally grown and possessed in Colorado and Washington inevitably ends up in other states. It will continue to rely on a ludicrous interpretation of the Commerce Clause as its justification for Prohibition, but despite its best efforts it will be fighting against the tide. I’ve never tried growing a marijuana plant—and I’m not about to start—but from what I gather it is not that difficult. The federal government might as well try to enforce laws against leaving dishes in the sink.
All of this rests on the premise that it is possible to simply use marijuana and not abuse it, a distinction the federal government does not make. If these reforms lead to massive social chaos and millions of lost or wasted lives, my optimism will have been misplaced. But I hardly think these fears are even worthy of consideration. Besides, marijuana is already consumed all across country, and many (most?) Americans have tried it at some point in their lives without losing their minds and fortunes. There are costs and benefits to everything, true, but one could hardly argue that alcohol should be legal while marijuana is not, nor could one argue that alcohol prohibition is a sane policy.
Viewed from many years in the future, I think these initiatives will be seen as marking a major turning point in the advance of liberty. In the short term, perhaps near-future crackdowns by the Obama administration will open at least some peoples’ eyes to the mistaken belief that the Democratic Party really cares about civil liberties and may help some people of good intentions break free from the false consciousness that has kept them there.