Decriminalizing Marijuana

Brian Gongol

When it comes to political philosophy, I'm of the pretty strong belief that everybody should have one. I can't stand cults of personality (and we've now had two Presidents in a row elected almost entirely on that basis). I think political tribalism is toxic. And I think the way we live and govern our lives is too important not to put some thought into the process.

My own philosophy is shaped heavily by the writings of people like James Madison, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. In other words, I tend to have a very strong belief that people are free to do what they choose for themselves, as long as they don't hurt others -- and that the most important control relationship is not for the state to control the individual, but for individuals to limit the state.

So that should make me a pretty hard-core libertarian, right? Except that it doesn't. At least, not a capital-L Libertarian. And part of the reason is that Libertarians bug me when they take a good idea and carry it to an extreme. Gold-bug libertarians, "taxation-is-theft" anarcho-libertarians, and especially the smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em weed-lover libertarians all drive me nuts, because they tend to take one particular freedom choice and make it the end-all, be-all of their philosophy.

That doesn't even mean I disagree with them. I think a gold standard is a stupid and indefensible idea, but I do believe in a sound currency (I just agree with Milton Friedman that a gold standard is a rotten way to achieve it). I do not believe that "all taxation is theft", but I do think that it's theft for a government to tax any more than is necessary to pay for the things that it must provide and produce a balanced budget (after all, a persistent and large budget deficit is a form of inter-generational theft). So that puts me in line not with the anarcho-libertarians, but with Calvin Coolidge, who said, "The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny."

And on the matter of marijuana legalization, you're never going to see me in a Bob Marley shirt getting baked at a Phish concert, but I've never been convinced that there's a compelling government interest in prohibiting its use among adults. Canada just legalized it, and frankly, I think it would be pretty sensible to decriminalize it on the national level. It's not that I particularly think marijuana is all that special, but rather that any harm it actually does can be limited much more effectively by subjecting it to light regulation and light taxation than by sending anyone to prison for it.

That's really my objection to its current treatment under the law: The consequences we make people pay for it. Sending someone to prison should be a very rare event, since it deprives the individual of their freedom. That's a really harsh penalty in a free society. I don't think the conditions of prisons even need to be harsh for this to be the case: You could turn a Ritz Carlton into a prison, but it should be the lack of freedom -- not the physical conditions of the experience -- that make it a deterrent. (If you truly take your Bill of Rights seriously, you should believe this, too: The Eighth Amendment says "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The amendment implies indisputably that the deprivation of liberty and freedom is meant to be the real punishment.)

Marijuana offenders are about 12% of the Federal drug-related prison population. It's not the largest group, by far, but it's still about 11,000 people. Some of them belong there -- but I suspect that most probably don't, and that it's just a deadweight on our society to have them locked up at our expense instead of living their lives on the outside.

So I'm not about to make it a litmus test for my voting in November, and I'm definitely not going to go around in a NORML t-shirt. But it's my basic indifference to its use that tells me that we ought to take a cue from our poutine-eating, Labatt's-drinking neighbors to the north and think about dropping the unnecessary charges. It's not that there's anything especially great about marijuana -- but without an overwhelming case to take it away, shouldn't our instinct be to simply leave adults to their own choices and freedoms?