Are Libertarians Just Pot Smoking Republicans?

This diary entry has been in the making for many months now even before Erick Erickson weighed in on the issue and other diary writers have expressed their views whether it was through reasoned articles or responses to other person’s articles. As to the link between the use of marijuana and libertarians, this simply falls under the umbrella of keeping the heavy hand of government out of the personal lives of others if the behavior has no individual or societal negative effect. This “heavy hand of government” aversion is sprinkled throughout libertarian thought from so-called “victimless” crime to unfettered free markets. Technically, is there such a thing as “victimless” crime? Some people like to point out prostitution as an example, but even here there are victims vis-a-vis the associated crimes of robbery and larceny of patrons, broken families, sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention the horrid life of a prostitute.

Back to the issue of marijuana, many opponents of its legalization or decriminalization note that it is a “gateway drug” that leads to harder, more harmful drugs. I am quite sure that many (not all) readers here know of people who used marijuana and perhaps abused marijuana at one time who are fine upstanding and productive citizens today. Likewise, we likely know many of the same people who are deadbeats today and a drain on society. Personally, I do not know of too many people who ended up heroin addicts. That is not to say it cannot happen though.

Another argument is the comparisons between marijuana and alcohol which is comparing apples to oranges historically, traditionally, psychologically, and in the pharmaceutical respect. Generally, the libertarian will point out that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana. However, this comparison sort of defeats their message since they are admitting that marijuana has a harm associated with it. Hence, we are only arguing about the relative degree of that harm. Naturally, any drug has harms associated with it. Prolonged overuse of aspirin can cause liver damage, for example.

The point of this entry is not to address every argument in a “point/counterpoint” manner. Instead, it is to find a middle ground compromise solution to the debate. To me, one of the biggest problems impeding the entire discussion is the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug. To get on this list, three general criteria must be met. First, marijuana must have the high potential for abuse. Second, it must have no accepted medical use. Third, there must be a lack of accepted safety practices and protocols for its use. As to the first criteria, after years and years of study the high potential for abuse is at best 50/50. Even the most ardent anti-legalization voices admit this. Second, marijuana clearly does now have a medical use. And as for #3, if it is illegal for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I drug, how can safety practices and protocols even be devised or studied if criteria one and two block that action? Thus, this really comes down to the “high potential for abuse” criteria.

If marijuana was removed from the list of Schedule I drugs, then this would clear the way for state’s to more readily enact medical marijuana laws since the fear of DEA sweeps would be gone. There is no reason to take it off a drug list totally since it is, after all, a drug. But, moving it to another schedule makes it easier for states in the medical use category. But, that takes care of only a part of the problem. The remainder deals with the casual user of marijuana.

Practically every piece of literature I have read on the finances of legalized, regulated marijuana indicates that it would not necessarily be a great tax revenue generator and would likely act like a regressive tax since the average abuser tends to come from the lower socioeconomic classes. All eyes will be on Colorado this year to see how much revenue is generated for the state. My educated guess is that actual revenue will fall somewhere short of that projected by the state. Instead, most of the revenue generated is actually in the form of law enforcement and judicial system savings, which is not a bad thing. Still, if any state believes that legalizing marijuana will solve their fiscal woes, they are seriously mistaken.

Another consideration is the amount a legal unit of pot costs versus that purchased on the black market. With the recent voter approved tax structure in Colorado, for example, an one-eighth ounce of marijuana purchased through a licensed dealer would cost about $43 compared to $32 on the black market. The state counters that the purchaser is assured of the quality from the licensed dealer because of the regulations. But to the casual user or even abuser, as long as they are getting their high, I believe simple economics will win the day. Thus, the state has to be careful not to tax themselves out of the market.

Once removed from Schedule I there is nothing holding back the FDA or DEA from placing it back on Schedule I in the future if the evidence suggests such action should be taken. The problem is that we do not have definitive studies one way or the other on its potential for abuse and/or addiction. In effect, the “decriminalization” would be the massive experimental study. Furthermore, once removed from Schedule I, the states or even the FDA and DEA can enact regulations for its use or purchase. For examples, limits can be placed on individual monthly purchases or zoning laws can be enacted to spread out legal dispensaries and “stores.” Like any regulation, they would be naturally subject to abuse and people would find ways around them. Still, the attempt is actually better than nothing.

The fact is that marijuana made it onto the list of Schedule I drugs based on suspect scientific data at the time. But, times have changed as has the science. Unless sprinkled with angel dust (PCP), I doubt too many people behave as they did in “Reefer Madness” and other scare movies of that time. Thus, the science needs to be further updated but cannot be updated because of its classification. We are left with the assumption that its mere classification is all that is required. Heroin is a Schedule II drug and no one doubts that it is considerably worse than marijuana.

So, the solution, I believe, is to at least experiment in this area by removing at least the federal government’s stance thus allowing states to see what does and does not work, to study the data, then move on from there. Nothing in the Colorado law or proposals in other states mandates that because pot is legal, an employer must hire them, so that argument is moot. An employer’s denial of employment based on what may be erroneous preconceptions (not saying they are erroneous, only that it needs to be studied) of the marijuana user can go on unimpeded.

What can it hurt to at least try this method over a certain proscribed period of time and then gather the evidence and let the chips fall where they may. The libertarian should be open to its reclassification if the evidence points that way and the no legalization crowd should likewise go where the evidence leads. Polls regarding the legalization of marijuana indicate that many people are more open to that option than at any point in our past. Not all of those respondents are young, pot-smoking people. Admittedly, poll results should not dictate what may be bad public policy in the end, but this compromise view would come with potential political advantages. Should the GOP get in front of this issue by proposing and advancing this compromise, they may just capture some of the votes of younger people who tend to vote Democratic. Not that the legalization of marijuana is a major, defining issue for the youth vote just as a stance on abortion is not the defining issue for the female vote or a stance on immigration is a defining issue for the Hispanic vote. But, the compromise indicates that the Republican Party is not the party of old, stodgy white men trapped in the days of “Reefer Madness.”