Opinion

The 3 best arguments against legalizing pot — and why they all fail

In an era or rising moral libertarianism, the arguments of the past have lost their power to convince

America is going to pot — and no one much seems to care.

Sure, Florida opted on Election Day not to take the plunge into full marijuana legalization, but that made the state an exception to the trend. Oregon and Alaska (along with the District of Columbia) joined Colorado and Washington state in permitting the recreational use of marijuana. Together with the states that already allow pot for medical purposes, that's a total of 23 states with some form of legal weed.

As with the lightning-fast evolution of the country on gay marriage, the change in judgments about pot use has been accomplished because of the rise of moral libertarianism. Americans increasingly believe that individuals should be free to engage in behavior that harms no one besides the person who consensually chooses to engage in it, especially when the harm is either minimal or wrapped up with traditionalist religious convictions that (supposedly) have no business being backed up by law and the coercive power of the state. Once the solvent of moral libertarianism is applied to just about any contrary argument, that argument's cogency dissolves right before our eyes.

And then we are left with an absence of reasons not to engage in behavior that was once presumed to be both immoral and justifiably illegal.

Don't believe me? Let's think it through. Here are the three strongest arguments I can think of against legalizing pot — all of which I once endorsed, and all of which I now reject.

Argument 1: Statecraft as Soulcraft. Variations on this most sweeping argument can be found in the writings of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Alexis de Tocqueville, founding neoconservative Irving Kristol, and the formerly impressive conservative columnist George F. Will. It holds that all nations, even liberal ones, have a stake in ensuring that the souls of their citizens remain uncorrupted by moral pollutants. This is why so many political communities throughout history have outlawed dangerous books, pornography and other degrading images, and the consumption of various drugs (including, sometimes, alcohol).

Pot, in particular, grants its users an intense experience of euphoria somewhat analogous to the pleasure and happiness that normally follow from the doing of great deeds and the accomplishment of great goals. A society that permits the use of a drug that makes this experience widely available, disconnected from any worthwhile deeds or accomplishments, will end up encouraging enervation. Why make a strenuous effort to achieve greatness when you can enjoy an intense experience of euphoria with a bong hit?

The Libertarian Response: Souls? Dangerous books? Moral pollutants? Puh-leeze! Even if some old fogies still look at the world this way, surely most of us can agree that the idea of giving the government the power to enforce such rules on the rest of us is a terrible — and horribly illiberal — idea. It sounds like a cross between Puritan New England and the Gestapo. After all, if we outlaw marijuana on these grounds, then why not try prohibition again, since alcohol is arguably worse than pot for a person's health? And likewise with porn. And violent movies and video games. Once the government is empowered to craft souls, it's hard to know where to draw the line on what it can police and proscribe. Much better to say "hands off" and live with the (probably minimal) consequences.

Argument 2: Class-Based Paternalism. Perhaps it's foolish to assume that everyone who smokes pot will be adversely effected by it. Maybe, as Andrew Sullivan is fond of arguing, marijuana can inspire intense creative and spiritual experiences that surpass what most people would otherwise get to enjoy. But certainly this isn't true for everyone. For those in fragile socioeconomic situations, drug use of any kind can make things worse.

That's especially true when the drug can induce lethargy and inspire (once again) an intense euphoria that goes far beyond what any struggling, impoverished person is likely to experience from a life toiling away at menial, low-paying jobs. Why not, then, just live on the dole, spending government handouts on a drug that will make an aimless life more endurable and even intensely pleasant for the first hour or so after lighting up a joint? Even if many people suffer no noticeable harm from smoking pot, this isn't true for the most vulnerable members of society. We need to keep marijuana illegal for their sake.

The Libertarian Response: Some libertarians — the ones who embrace economic along with moral libertarianism — will suggest that unemployment and welfare benefits need to be much less generous, rendering this scenario highly unlikely. But even if we presume welfare policy remains what it is now, we should be hesitant to embrace a policy of such heavy-handed paternalism toward the poor. Do we ban alcohol in ghettos and trailer parks? Or hand out alcohol licenses based on income levels? Of course not. Because that would be absurdly overwrought, whatever the marginal benefits might be. The same should hold for pot use.

And anyway, why shouldn't those leading hard lives get to enjoy a high? Of course they already do. It's just that when they partake, they risk ending up in jail. That certainly doesn't help anyone break out of poverty.

Argument 3: Change Is Bad. If we were constructing a society from scratch and wanted to allow one recreational drug, we might very well choose to permit pot and ban alcohol, along with other physically addictive substances. But of course, starting over is never an option. In the world we have, alcohol use (and yes, abuse) is firmly embedded in the culture, which is why prohibition proved to be such a disaster. Marijuana, by contrast, has never been widely accepted. Making it legal now would remove this stigma, granting it the tacit approval of mainstream society. The result is sure to be an increase in its use. Is that really what America needs now? Another socially sanctioned drug? Haven't we gotten along perfectly fine without it? What about the negative consequences we can't even begin to anticipate? Wouldn't it be better not to change?

The Libertarian Response: This vaguely Burkean argument in favor of the rule of settled habits and mores has a certain blunt power. But Americans obviously don't defer to the dead hand of custom in any other area of life. Why should we do it on drug policy? Self-government no less than good sense demand that we subject received traditions to rational analysis and then propose reforms. When we do this with our nation's drug laws, we see very clearly that our once-draconian strictures against marijuana frequently wrecked people's lives for reasons that made little sense. It would be much better to make changes and then just deal with the consequences. There is no good reason not to.

"There is no good reason not to."

That is the libertarian principle that's bringing us gay marriage. Just as it's poised someday soon to give us nationwide legalized marijuana.

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