A Reasonable Approach to Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana legalization is one area that confounds operatives on the Right.  Libertarians, for example, view this purely in terms of personal liberty while more staunch conservatives view this in terms of morality.  At least the far Left has no such debate- they are all for pot legalization.

Actually, the personal liberty argument is rife with errors.  There are many things to which one can make a claim in the name of “personal liberty.”  Is it an exercise of personal liberty to take one’s life, for example?  And the list can go on where one’s personal morality dictates the parameters of personal liberty and how far those boundaries can be stretched.  Furthermore, when we talk of the morality of drug use we get into a morass from which there is no easy escape.

Instead, most of the argument has been centered on the economics of pot legalization.  States that have approved or contemplated legalization usually cite the revenue benefits of a state-regulated market.  In Colorado, for example, the money raised is dedicated to education spending and school construction- a bizarre, but lofty goal where buildings are constructed on the financial backs of pot users when those buildings will be used to teach children the dangers of drug use and marijuana is a drug.  That is, unless Colorado intends to cease drug education in their schools altogether.  One can see the inherent hypocrisy at play here: encouraging pot smoking while teaching the dangers of pot smoking- “its legal, kids, but don’t smoke it.”

Initial reports of revenue figures from Colorado indicate that the expected revenues may not be seen, although the money brought in to date is nothing to laugh at.  The problem, as this writer views the financial aspect, is that the state must walk a fine line and not price itself out of the market.  For example, if an ounce of pot at a state regulated outlet costs $45 while one on the street corner costs $29 (just throwing out numbers; I don’t buy nor smoke pot), my guess is that the pot smoker will go for the $29 ounce on the street corner.  The state claims that the higher cost guarantees a certain quality, but I seriously doubt the persistent user of pot really cares.  After all, these are the same people who will smoke salvia given the chance and finances.

The government counters that law enforcement is freed up to pursue more dangerous drugs and other criminals.  Really?  The non-state sanctioned black market seller of pot is still subject to criminal law and although they may eke their way out of a drug charge, they are transformed from a drug offender to a tax cheater.  My guess is that the costs basically even out somewhere along the line since, like cigarettes, alcohol or any other vice, there will be a black market.

Of course, it makes no sense to incarcerate pot smokers.  This is a costly exercise to the state and makes criminals out of people who smoke pot when it should rightfully make criminals out of those who distribute marijuana illegally.  On the flip side, opponents use these incomplete statistics from Colorado to declare victory on their claims that legalization will lead to increased use of pot among younger people and a plethora of other social ills.  Perhaps where they have some truth on their side is the burgeoning homeless population flocking to Colorado from neighboring states in a perverse dance of pot tourism.  The hard core pot user is usually a net drag on a state’s social service network and Colorado is finding that out the hard way.

So, what is a conservative to do?  The problem regarding the legalization of marijuana lies with an outdated law that cries for revision.  Marijuana is considered a Schedule I controlled substance.  In order to get on the list of Schedule I substances, it must meet three criteria:

  1. The drug has a high potential for abuse;
  2. The drug has no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and;
  3. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.

The solution is to reclassify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.  One cannot deny that marijuana is a drug that belongs under this law, but certainly not Schedule I.  Just under the second criteria listed above one can see that it does not belong on the list of Schedule I drugs.  Instead, most of the justification for Schedule I inclusion is the first criteria listed above.  Considered by some a “gateway drug,” the jury is still conclusively out on that one years later.  And clearly there is an accepted safety protocol under medical supervision, so inclusion fails the third criteria.

Conservatives regularly point out that the fact that the states are the great incubators of ideas in a democratic society.  Why not let the states experiment in this area just as we allow them to experiment with welfare reform, or tax reform, abortion regulations, health care reform, or any other thing?  All the anecdotal evidence means little without real world studies on the effects of marijuana legalization in society and on a state’s finances.  Personally, like any vice, I do not believe marijuana legalization is the great fiscal panacea the proponents make it to be.  Just as states and cities find that casino gambling is not the path to fiscal stability, Colorado and other states will discover the same with marijuana legalization.