Time for con­ser­va­tives to lead on mar­i­juana laws

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Young is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Rea­son mag­a­zine and the web­site RealClearPol­i­tics. This was writ­ten for News­day.

Among

the re­sults of last month’s elec­tions was a star­tling cul­tural devel­op­ment: two states, Colorado and Washington, be­came the first to le­gal­ize the sale of mar­i­juana for any pur­pose to adults older than 21. This co­in­cides with na­tional polls that show in­creas­ing sup­port for mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion. Yet on this is­sue, con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als alike have balked at de­fend­ing in­di­vid­ual rights and states’ rights.

Since 1996, when Cal­i­for­nia al­lowed the medic­i­nal use of mar­i­juana, 17 more states and the District of Columbia have fol­lowed suit. A Washington Post-ABC News poll three years ago found over­whelm­ing sup­port for le­gal­iz­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana use: 81 per­cent were in fa­vor. More re­cent CBS News and Quin­nip­iac polls have shown Amer­i­cans al­most evenly split on le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational sale of mar­i­juana to adults, with sup­port­ers ahead by 3 to 4 per­cent­age points. In 1969, only 16 per­cent fa­vored le­gal­iza­tion.

While the use of cannabis has been il­le­gal since the 1930s (when the name “mar­i­juana” was pop­u­lar­ized by op­po­nents to cap­i­tal­ize on anti-Mex­i­can stereo­types), the ban — like al­co­hol pro­hi­bi­tion be­fore it — can be seen as the ul­ti­mate in in­tru­sive government. If the state’s go­ing to tell us there are sub­stances we’re not al­lowed to in­gest or in­hale, there had bet­ter be a very com­pelling rea­son to jus­tify such in­tru­sion.

Few would join lib­er­tar­ian purists in ad­vo­cat­ing the le­gal­iza­tion of hard drugs such as co­caine or heroin; but more and more Amer­i­cans agree that mar­i­juana is no more harm­ful than other prod­ucts such as al­co­hol and to­bacco. Among those un­der 30, as many as 70 per­cent en­dorse full le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana.

Yet even the use of mar­i­juana for med­i­cal rea­sons — such as nau­sea and pain con­trol, sup­ported by elo­quent tes­ti­mony from pa­tients — has run into dogged op­po­si­tion from the fed­eral government. While the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­tially moved to end the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s raids on med­i­cal mar­i­juana dis­trib­u­tors in states where such dis­pen­saries were le­gal (though they run afoul of fed­eral laws), it has re­versed course to­ward more ag­gres­sive en­force­ment.

On the state level, too, even lim­ited le­gal­iza­tion con­tin­ues to en­counter strong op­po­si­tion — in part be­cause it would con­flict with fed­eral law. In New York, the Demo­crat-con­trolled State As­sem­bly has voted three times — most re­cently in June — to le­gal­ize med- ical mar­i­juana; the Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated Se­nate has blocked the bill. Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo has strad­dled the fence, back­ing the de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of pos­ses­sion in small amounts but also say­ing that med­i­cal mar­i­juana’s risks out­weigh the ben­e­fits.

You would think that both con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als would have good rea­sons to sup­port le­gal­iza­tion. Con­ser­va­tives have long cham­pi­oned small government and ad­vo­cated leav­ing most pol­icy is­sues to the states; even if one be­lieves that gov­ern­ments have a le­git­i­mate in­ter­est in re­strict­ing mar­i­juana sale and con­sump­tion, there is no rea­son to reg­u­late it on a na­tional level. Lib­er­als have long cham­pi­oned the right of adult men and women to make their own life­style choices re­gard­less of so­cial dis­ap­proval, as long as their ac­tions cause no di­rect harm to oth­ers.

The sta­tus quo is de­fended by pow­er­ful groups from evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians to law en­force­ment of­fi­cials. Yet leg­is­lat­ing an in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar moral­ity un­der­cuts re­spect for both moral­ity and law — and en­forc­ing mar­i­juana pro­hi­bi­tion di­verts re­sources that could be used to fight real crime.

In our po­lar­ized en­vi­ron­ment, ef­forts by ei­ther po­lit­i­cal party to move to­ward a more ra­tio­nal mar­i­juana pol­icy would likely be painted as pro-drug by the other side. So far, only mav­er­icks — such as re­tir­ing Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former New Mex­ico Gov. Gary John­son — have been will­ing to take a pro-lib­erty stance on this is­sue. For more main­stream politi­cians to fol­low in their foot­steps would be risky, but it would also show true lead­er­ship.

BREN­NAN LINS­LEY / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pre­pared mar­i­juana is dis­played for sale for those who pos­sess a med­i­cal mar­i­juana card in­side a dis­pen­sary in Ned­er­land, Colo.

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