Politics & Policy

Let States Decide on Pot

Pot dispensary in Los Angeles (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The war on marijuana carries high costs and offers few benefits.

Residents of El Paso, Texas, last week were struck by a deeply troubling sight. A billboard usually in the service of peaceful, commercial enterprise had been painted over with the ominous words “Plata o Plomo” — a familiar borderland phrase meaning “Take the bribe or take the bullet.”

Dangling by a hangman’s noose beneath the billboard was a mannequin in a business suit. From a second billboard another mannequin was similarly hanged. They were chilling reminders of the real corpses of Mexican businessmen and officials who have been murdered, their bodies displayed in like manner, for refusing to cooperate with the drug cartels.

Was the international marijuana war finally threatening to leave carnage on U.S. streets? Not exactly: This blood-soaked war has long since come to our nation’s inner-city streets. The hanging dummies, the menacing words — these simply brought the hideous corruption of it all into more glaring, mocking view.

The “drug war,” while targeting far worse substances as well, is primarily about weed. It is, after all, an iron law of prohibition that markets for more dangerous poisons — think “bathtub gin” — develop when a less toxic one is banned.

As more states lift criminal penalties on marijuana, unreconstructed weed warriors step up their warnings of its many dangers. True as some of those warnings may be, what these holdouts ignore are the incalculable costs to our free society of continuing this long-lost war.

Those costs?

The explosion of gun violence across our urban landscape, now spreading to suburbs and the countryside; our unconscionable incarceration rates; the out-of-control and unconstitutional seizure of private property on drug enforcers’ whims; the corruption and militarization of our police; the chronic despair forced on minority Americans; a monumentally dysfunctional and alienating policy toward our Latin American neighbors; and even, yes, the subtle, psychological robbery of the self-worth and self-responsibility necessary to addressing drug-related problems realistically.

This is not a proper vision of government’s role, as the late William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman, among many others, taught my generation. We constitutionalists respected the Tenth Amendment’s preference for state laws, and we trusted the moral autonomy of the individual.

The drug cartels, which our laws unintentionally created, offer Plato o Plomo. Here’s the better bargain: End the weed war and watch as responsible and freeborn citizens find successful means to contain marijuana use creatively.

Recently reported numbers from Colorado strongly reinforce the old limited-government advocates’ wisdom: In the three months since the state effectively legalized marijuana, violent crime dropped 5.6 percent while property crimes plummeted 11.9 percent. Can we now at least admit that highly intensified law enforcement can yield the opposite of its intended effects?

Didn’t we already know that?

Predictably, as polls show Americans by large margins support legalization, the weed warriors ignore the terrible toll taken by the war’s continuation. Instead, they find new studies (funny how these inevitably pop up) showing how marijuana is now ten times (or pick your multiplying factor) more potent than when we boomers were toking our way to perdition.

Oh, we didn’t toke our way to perdition? I suggest that the “gateway” argument fails to convince those boomers who, like me, long ago gave up marijuana altogether, or strictly limited their use, when living a productive life dictated. It is hypocritical to mete out penalties to younger generations doing what we did.

When I (weed-free) wrote speeches for President Ronald Reagan, I handled much of the “Just Say No” messaging. I can tell you that today’s weed warriors tend to miss his theme of respect for individual choice. The speeches were not about jailing users, breaking down doors of private citizens, or turning cops on the beat into paramilitary units — all of which would have appalled him.

As for the markedly increased potency, two responses: (1) That, too, is a consequence of a prohibitionist regimen that necessarily imposes restrictions on supply and demand. Distributed quantities as a result must deliver more potency. (2) With freer production and distribution, demand for tolerable doses will be met and, likely, preferred.

More studies tell us of serious psychological and physiological effects, such as a marijuana-induced tendency toward schizophrenia. But how is that not also the case with any number of prescribed or over-the-counter medicines now required to display voluminous safety warnings on their packaging?

Call me a hopeless Friedmanite, but I am convinced a freer market will work out safety standards and a way to publicize them. Why wouldn’t it? Ultimately, individuals do hold their fates in their own hands; legal deterrence always falls short. That is one way to understand human dignity, which brings us to medical marijuana.

Many desperate patients have defied the federal government’s insistence that they suffer needlessly and have sought marijuana as a remedy for numerous ailments. When the need for treatment hits your own family — the odds of which are likely for most Americans – we start thinking about marijuana in a friendlier way.

More than half the states allow people with serious illnesses to use marijuana and its derivatives. The vast majority of Americans — about 85 percent, according to recent polls — support this policy. What’s driving this surge is the realization by patients, researchers, and physicians that such treatment may offer enormous relief for numerous patients. I would lay this positive research against the more alarmist findings any day. It is cruel for political Washington to ignore humane sentiment for most Americans.

That is why I propose, along with Representative Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), an amendment to the Justice Department funding bill that requires the federal government to honor those states that have chosen their own legislative paths toward marijuana policy. That, and the anger welling up within me to tell the cartels what they can do with those obscene billboards.

— Dana Rohrabacher represents California’s 48th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.


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