Saturday, September 12, 2020

Why I Will Be Voting To Legalize Weed

This November, my home state will be holding a referendum on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. My plan is to vote yes in the referendum, and, owing to the rising generation’s almost complete lack of support for marijuana prohibition, I am fairly certain that my side will win.

Now, as my audience consists mainly of people on the right, and because right-wingers are less likely to vote yes on questions like this than are leftists, I figured that I should explain my thoughts on the matter.

To begin with, I don’t support marijuana legalization out of a general belief that government shouldn’t enforce morality. Rather, I support it because I think that America’s last few decades of experience with marijuana prohibition has shown it to be impractical. That is to say, the potential benefits are not worth enough to justify the downsides.

But as for that maxim that “government shouldn’t enforce morality,” I think it to be nonsense. The reason that we have laws against murder, arson, stealing, etc. is that nearly everybody considers those acts immoral. So when someone says that “government shouldn’t enforce morality” what he or she really means is “government shouldn’t enforce other people’s morality, but as I don’t happen to think that the thing we’re discussing right now is immoral...”

Now, one could reasonably argue that murder, arson, stealing, etc. are different because they’re things which every society has prohibited, for the simple reason that a society that doesn’t prohibit them can’t survive for very long. But here’s the problem: there are also plenty of aspects of modern American morality which nearly every American agrees should be enforced by law, even though, historically speaking, they’re not as universal as the taboos against murder and stealing.

For example, sex between an adult and an eleven-year-old child is illegal in the United States because nearly everybody agrees that it is immoral, while in past societies which did not consider it to be immoral, such as ancient Greece, it was not illegal. A libertarian might say that this is different because of the element of consent, but that argument has at least two flaws.

First, the idea that children below a certain age cannot consent to sex had to be established by legislation; it isn’t some kind of objectively verifiable fact. And second, not all societies share our belief that nonconsensual sex is always immoral. For example, it was only fairly recently, in the big picture, that Euro-American law codes began to frown upon married men having sex with their wives against their will.

So in reality, the marijuana question is less about whether government should enforce morality, and more about what sorts of moral principles can be enforced by the government in a practical and/or worthwhile way. Or in other words, the real debate is about which moral concerns should be transformed into public, enforceable legislation, and which ones shouldn’t.

For example, I think that even among people with the most traditional views on sexual morality, few would want to go as far as the Puritan founders of New Haven, Connecticut, who, in 1656, wrote a law code in which masturbation was a capital offense. This is obviously an extreme case, but it demonstrates an important point: before outlawing something, it isn’t enough to just ask if it’s immoral; you also need to do a cost-benefit analysis and ask yourself what you can practically expect to accomplish by making it illegal as well. (FYI, as far as the records show, New Haven’s masturbation law was never enforced).

For people who will be voting in my state’s weed referendum (or in any other state’s weed referendum) this analysis is made a lot easier by the fact that most states have had laws against marijuana for several decades, so we can see exactly how ineffective they are.

To begin with, nearly every member of my generation has smoked marijuana, and the vast majority have completely gotten away with it. But even though, from the individual stoner’s point of view, being arrested and tried is a rare event, marijuana is so widespread that a huge amount of police resources are being tied down in what has become, in effect, a quest to disrupt the lives of an almost-random sampling of the American population.

The failed campaign against marijuana not only distracts the police from cracking down on more serious threats to the public safety (i.e. drunk driving, violent crime, sex crimes, etc.), it also gives them more opportunities to violate Americans’ civil rights.

For example, young black men are a lot more likely to be stopped and searched just for being black when the police know that any search of a young person is likely to turn up evidence for a crime. Now, it so happens that smoking weed in one’s youth is the norm among all races, with the possible exception of Asians, so if they really wanted to, the police could routinely search young white men on the same grounds. But for a variety of reasons, they choose to mostly search blacks.

As an even more egregious example, nearly every American police department gets a large portion of its revenue from civil asset forfeiture, a legal process in which assets suspected to have been used in the commission of a crime – for instance, a drug dealer’s truck – can be seized in a civil proceeding without the defendant having to be convicted of, or even charged with, the crime in question. While the attempts by a few right-wingers to abolish civil asset forfeiture haven't accomplished much, it will at least become less common if marijuana is legalized.

It is also worth noting that, right now, young people who buy and smoke weed – i.e. the majority of young people – have to get it from an illegal drug dealer (or an “unlicensed pharmacist” if you want to use euphemisms along the lines of “undocumented immigrant.”) Once connected to the world of the underground drug trade, these dealers will have a strong incentive to get their customers to try out worse drugs – cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl, and so forth.

Take away the need for marijuana users to buy their product on the black market, and fewer of them will end up regularly doing business with the sorts of people who are hankering to get them hooked on hard drugs, too.

This is a big deal, because most other illegal drugs are so much more harmful than marijuana that putting them in the same category is bound to cause trouble. (And I’m not talking about the schedule system; to most people, all illegal drugs form one big category). To put things in perspective: nobody has ever died of a marijuana overdose, stoned driving is less dangerous than drunk driving, and it’s a lot easier to deal with an employee or a family member who is stoned a lot than one who is a habitual drunk, which is in turn easier than dealing with someone who is addicted to cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, or something else along those lines.

Don’t get me wrong – if I was designing the ideal society, recreational drug use of all sorts would have no place in it. And as far as personal morality goes, I’m a complete abstainer. I’ve never smoked marijuana, and I don’t have any plans to start. I liked Elon Musk’s assessment of it during his Times interview two years ago: “Weed is not helpful for productivity,” he said. “There's a reason for the word ‘stoned.’ You just sit there like a stone on weed.”

But I just don’t consider the problems with marijuana to be serious enough to justify the government trying to control it the way it controls hard drugs, which I am unabashedly against. (And that includes their legal as well as their illegal uses – I have explained here and here why I think that putting young children on amphetamines for ADHD is one of the biggest human rights abuses going on in the world right now).

But weed is a separate thing. It simply doesn’t provoke strong opinions from me, and while I won’t partake of it myself, I have no desire to stop anybody else from partaking.

And even though I don’t reject the idea, in principle, that government should sometimes enforce morality, I am also a pragmatist who thinks that all of our laws should be subject to level-headed cost/benefit analysis. And in the case of the laws against marijuana, I think that the costs – both to the public well-being and to our liberties – far outweigh the benefits.

And that is why, this November, I will be voting to legalize weed. 


  1. Well argued. The only sensible objection would be to assert that the downside is much larger than you think ... that it is, for example, comparable to the downside of so-called 'hard' drugs. I don't think that's a plausible argument. Marijuana is arguably less damaging than alcohol. Which doesn't mean that it won't be abused, just as alcohol is.

    I think you need to shore up your argument re 'enforcing morality'. The classic distinction here is, my wanting the law to protect me from your doing harm to me -- robbery, murder -- vis my wanting it to protect YOU from your doing harm to yourself, although frequently, in practice, the enforcers-of-morality will argue that your doing something harmful to yourself sets an example that indirectly harms others.

    It's good that you have not fallen into Consistent Libertarianism. If anyone is tempted by this Heresy, consider the following proposition. Under Libertarian rule -- or is that a contradiction in terms? -- I could open a Cannibal Cafe, so long as the fare volunteered itself to go on the menu. (Perhaps someone who was gong to commit suicide anyway thought that selling his carcass to my cafe's butcher would be a nice way to leave a little something to his children; or perhaps someone was desperate to get cancer treatment for her child, and could only raise the money this way. Sort of like GoFundMe but you get a meal in return.
    Now, according to our Libertarian friends this is perfectly acceptable. A free exchange between uncoerced adults, no one is initiating force, who does your body belong to anyway, and it's not for me to criticize the customers' dietary tastes.
    But most of us intuitively recoil at the idea. It's not for supernatural reasons -- most of us would accept that there are desperate situations in which cannibalism is required, of rational beings. But the idea of a gourment cafe in which human beings are on the menu ... something in us says, No. (Of course, if this cafe were operated by Maori, then the Woke Left would no doubt defend it. Who are we, etc.)

    Is there any rational reason for our revulsion? Or is it just the sort of reflex that an uninitiated person might have upon seeing an involuntary disembowelment?

    I believe that there is a very good reason for our revulsion, and our prohibtion: in a word, it demoralizes society. It undermines the idea of the specialness, the sanctity, of human beings, to see them treated like cattle. Yes, we have to make an exception for our sensitivity here in war... an evil, but the lesser one.

    And: there is an argument to be had about 'hard' drugs -- a factual one. You are probably familiar with the stance of the editor of Reason magazine. But maybe for another time.

  2. enforcing " morality" well i needed a good laugh. I like a more absolute approach to these types of issues, no matter what the substance is , it could even be Chocolate. it's simple..NO HARM, NO LOSS, NO VICTIM, NO CRIME, NO GUILT. In the world of drugs , no matter where it came from, or what it is, a person partaking of that drug is not doing anything wrong. only by another persons personal opinion is it considered to be wrong, but if there is no harm caused, and no loss to anyone or anything, what has been done that is wrong, or a " crime ' victim, no crime. So i sure hope for your sake they ( rule makers ) never decide that coffee, or sugar, or Honey ( natural thing made by bees ) is an illegal substance and decide to make laws against its use. Morality can not be controlled, cuz evil is only controlled by a pure of heart, and causing no harm or loss, and God's ok with me making my own choices regarding anything that is put in front of me and my doing lets say " cocaine" is not harming anyone. and You dont get to protect me from myself, as some would say,, but you are harming yourself "" really ? let's not go down that road.