Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

Prohibition and Its Discontents

Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America, by William J. Bennett and Robert A. White (Center Street, 240 pp., $26)

That this book is about as good a defense of the prohibition position as it is possible to make, and that it lost me within the first couple of pages, may, at first blush, seem rather strange. And yet what appears to be a paradox is, in fact, merely a problem inherent to the broader debate over drugs: that, most of the time at least, the two sides are essentially talking past each other.

In their introduction, authors William J. Bennett and Robert A. White — whom I will henceforth refer to collectively as “Bennett” — deploy a rhetorical trick that sets the tone for the remainder of the work. Running through the many deleterious health problems that are associated with marijuana’s legal cousin, tobacco, Bennett supposes for the sake of argument that cigarettes are currently illegal and then asks whether anyone in his right mind would choose to legalize them. Evidently, the reader is expected to answer, “No.” “Given everything we know about the health consequences of smoking tobacco,” Bennett proposes bluntly, “most people would not vote to legalize cigarettes.” Nor, it is implied in parallel, would alcohol get the nod. My response, however, was an emphatic “Yes!” — as, for that matter, it would be if the question were posed of almost any intoxicating substance currently on the market. We did not get off to a good start.

I chose a similarly contrarian path when it was suggested that Americans have to choose between investment in health care and education on one hand and the legalization of weed on the other. “It is perplexing,” Bennett contends, “that we are so in favor of marijuana when there are ever-growing public-policy debates about mandating earlier education for our youth” — and, indeed, when “a large part of the Affordable Care Act was its mandate of health-care coverage.” America, he proposes, has simultaneously elected to spend “money and political capital on strengthening the health, education, and productivity of our populace” and to push for the “availability of a drug that hinders, and negatively affects . . . those very efforts.” This, he believes, is absurd.

Inasmuch as this juxtaposition serves to illustrate the pathetic intellectual inconsistency that is running riot within contemporary progressive thought, Bennett is here making a reasonable and timely point. (If you dare, try asking your average marijuana activist what he thinks of sugary soft drinks.) And yet one has to wonder how effective the point will be in convincing those conservatives whom Bennett hopes to prevent from jumping ship. Certainly, my reflexive reaction was that if we are being asked to choose between the welfare state and the excesses of liberty, then liberty must prevail. For Bennett, the fact that government spending on health and education necessitates claims on private behavior invites us to change that behavior from the ground up. For me, it represents a black mark against that spending. The Declaration of Independence tells us that governments are instituted among men to secure our liberties and to do little else besides. If new programs are violating those liberties, then they will have to go. Once again, Bennett and I are answering different questions. His: “Is marijuana sufficiently harmless to justify legalization?” Mine: “What right does the state have to determine what I may put into my body?” These approaches are irreconcilable.

Still, while Bennett is unlikely to win me over, his offering will undoubtedly hit the target elsewhere. Most Americans do not possess my more doctrinaire libertarian instincts in this area, nor are they motivated by constitutional or philosophical abstractions. Rather, for many people, such questions hinge upon the trade-off. With that in mind, it should be said that Bennett has presented the strongest case that he could without slipping into obvious chicanery. As he claims, it is indeed true that a good number of politicians and voters at the bleeding edge of legalization are now regretting their decisions — or, at least, that they are wishing that the trailblazing had fallen to others. It is fair to record that marijuana now tends to be more potent than it was in the 1970s — although whether this matters a great deal is eminently debatable. It is reasonable to ask legalizers whether their reappropriated “my body, my choice” rhetoric applies also to harder drugs, and, if it does not, why it does not. And one can often discern a meaningful difference between the excellent arguments that can be marshaled in favor of so-called medical marijuana and the manner in which it is actually provided on the ground. Having read Going to Pot, critics of the legalizing trend will be well armed for the debate, and perhaps persuaded, as Bennett hopes, to “do their own research and not blindly accept the arguments on behalf of marijuana legalization or medicalization without some critical thinking and common sense.”

Equally impelled toward research, one hopes, will be both younger voters — who are simultaneously strongly in favor of legalization and ignorant of the arguments that can be mounted against their position — and riled-up libertarians, who can exhibit a nasty tendency to conflate the argument that drugs should be legal with the pretense that drugs are not, in fact, that bad for you after all. Didactically, then, Bennett has done us a favor.

A decade ago, only 33 percent of Americans supported legalization. Today, more than 55 percent do. Edmund Burke, who held that conservatives should be hostile to sudden changes, would undoubtedly find much to praise in this book — even if that praise were just for the devil’s advocacy that is invariably necessary in the face of any heady rush toward change.

That being said, there are points at which Bennett’s case can feel desperate. I daresay that more dogs are indeed sent to the animal hospital to have their stomachs pumped in states where marijuana is legal; and I am happy to concede that where incentives exist to manufacture drugs, more houses will be inadvertently burned down in the process. But I’m not sure that these facts tell us a great deal that is important. There is, moreover, only so much torture that the evidence can take. It is certainly true that those who have tried marijuana are more likely to try harder drugs than those who have not; and yet, as the Institute of Medicine confirms, there is “no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.” It is also true that some studies show marijuana to have a deleterious effect on the young-adult brain; but it is also true that these studies have been criticized or even contradicted by equally well-qualified sources. As for Bennett’s regular implication that alcohol is less damaging to the body than marijuana, well, even the staunchly anti-weed group Project SAM doesn’t believe that.

Where Bennett genuinely flounders, though, is in his apparent unwillingness to address the quandary as it actually exists on the ground. Far too often in America, it feels as if the debate over legal weed revolves around the question of whether the United States should be a country in which adults smoke marijuana at all, rather than whether or not the United States should be a country in which adults smoke marijuana legally. By all accounts, the former question is moot. Per a 2013 Gallup survey, just under two in five Americans have tried marijuana at least once, while 7 percent of the adult population (some 16 million people) claim to indulge regularly. Meanwhile, a staggering 700,000 people are arrested every year for marijuana offenses and, as of 2012, 40,000 prisoners at the state and federal levels are doing time for offenses involving marijuana. Their incarceration, according to RAND’s Beau Kilmer, costs $1.2 billion per year. Other enforcement costs run significantly higher — both in financial terms and in the violence that they do to the Constitution. Even if one were to take at face value the medical claims offered in Going to Pot, after a fashion one would respectfully have to ask, “So what?”

Perhaps the most telling thing about this book is that its authors felt that their case needed to be argued at all. For almost a century now, the combination of social animus toward pot smokers and the well-developed sense that weed and crime were inextricably linked has served to so effectively harden Americans against marijuana that fruitful and patient debates have been impossible. Most famous among the prohibition era’s artifacts, perhaps, is a 1936 propaganda movie named “Reefer Madness,” in which high-school students who try the drug are depicted descending helplessly into suicide, manslaughter, rape, vehicular recklessness, and, finally, insanity. For decades, it was merely presumed that weed was bad news, and it was taken as an article of faith that the state should be empowered to do whatever it deemed necessary to fight it. In the last couple of years, however, the prohibitionists have come to realize that they can no longer rely on either old-fashioned hyperbole or the mindless acquiescence of the public, and that, in consequence, they will have to meet their critics on their critics’ terms. In Going to Pot, Bennett has made an excellent attempt at marshaling the strongest arguments they can find against the relaxation of the laws. Despite their efforts, however, those arguments remain weak.

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