Why I support marijuana legalization, and why you should vote Yes on Proposition 19
California has a proposition on the ballot this year, Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana.
I voted Yes. Hell, yes!
Not because I smoke the stuff, understand, or have ever had or ever will have any desire to smoke it. In fact, if it is legalized, as I hope it will be, I will be the first to encourage people not to smoke it. It's no worse for you than tobacco or alcohol, but those are still bad for you and so is marijuana. Don't toke up, kids.
So let me explain. I support legalization because I don't think everything that's bad for you needs to be illegal.
Alcohol is bad for you. Back in the 1920s, we tried a "noble experiment" of prohibiting it. What happened? People kept drinking it, of course, but it went underground. This led to consumption of unsafe bathtub gin containing poisonous wood alcohol; the domination of entire cities by gangsters funded by illicit alcohol sales; violent shootouts between said gangs; corruption of the police; mistrust between the police and the people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens but just wanted a drink now and then; etc. Prohibition was such a clear failure as policy that we passed a constitutional amendment to repeal it. The parallels to current drug policy are pretty clear.
Some people want to do drugs; they'll do drugs even if they're illegal; treating this consensual, if unhealthy, activity as a "crime" means empowering the police to be ever more invasive into our lives in order to search for the dreaded plants. The absurdity of the government, in a free country, telling adults what chemicals they are and are not allowed to put in their own bodies, and then throwing them in jail for consuming the wrong chemicals (as opposed to, say, sending them to a hospital to get treatment for addiction, that might actually help them) has led to a disturbingly high incidence of armed SWAT teams bursting in on people without search warrants. Whenever the USA declares war on an abstract concept - drugs, terrorism, DVD piracy -- our civil liberties lose out.
Aside from the civil liberties argument, there's the budget argument. California is broke; enforcing prohibition and keeping all those pot-smokers in jail is expensive. We'll save a ton of money, and go a long way to fixing prison overcrowding, by simply ending prohibition. If we manage to start taxing a newly above-ground marijuana industry, that's even better.
But even if we don't make any tax money off of it, it would still be a good idea to end prohibition. We'd free up police resources to go after real crimes - violent crimes, crimes with victims, rather than "crimes" that are merely voluntary vices.
Another good reason is to make it harder for teenagers to buy marijuana. Yes, that's right, harder. Sounds paradoxical? The thing is, it's already really really easy for teenagers to buy marijuana. Studies like this teen survey from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have shown that it's easier for teenagers to buy marijuana than beer!
Nearly one-quarter of teens (5.7 million) say they can get marijuana in an hour; four out of ten teens (10 million) can get marijuana within a day.
Legalization could actually make it harder for these teenagers to get drugs. Think of it this way - sellers of alcohol and tobacco card hard, i.e. they require photo ID with proof of age, because they can get into all sorts of serious legal trouble for selling to minors. Drug dealers are already in serious legal trouble for selling drugs at all, so what incentive do they have for carding people? They'll sell to anybody with money. But if marijuana was sold at legitimate, legal businesses, with reputations and operating licenses to protect, then those businesses would operate similar to how alcohol and tobacco sellers do today. Teenagers will still find ways to sneak it, of course; but if you think the current laws are preventing teenagers from sneaking it, you're in denial.
When teenagers can buy marijuana more easily than beer, it's time to admit that prohibition has failed. We fought the drug war; we lost. It's time to bring our laws into alignment with reality. Prop. 19 is the best chance I've seen so far in my lifetime to start doing that.
I should address that there's this weird thing going on with the Obama administration. Apparently Attorney General Eric Holder has said that he will "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana laws even if Prop. 19 passes. People are trying to figure out what he means by this. Is he saying that Californians do not have the right to decide what their own laws should be? Is he saying that he will send federal agents into California to round up pot smokers and try them - where, exactly? Under what constitutional authority? Alcohol prohibition required a national constitutional amendment; why does anyone think the feds could override California's state laws without a similar amendment?
Yes, there's the commerce clause - Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce... among the several States. Which by any sane reading should not apply to somebody growing herbs in California and selling them to other people in California. But apparently the Supreme Court has been interpreting that clause to mean whatever the hell it feels like, lately.
So who knows what will happen between CA and the feds if 19 passes. I think the administration's position on this is wrong, counterproductive, and nonsensical, but will they act on it? Somehow I suspect they're just posturing, and they'll have way more important things to focus on after Nov. 2 than provoking a big ugly showdown with California. The LA Times considered the possibility of said big ugly showdown a reason to vote against Prop 19, but personally I would kind of welcome it if we could actually have this argument and hash out these issues publically.
Aside from the whole Attorney General thing, the counterarguments to prop 19 keep shifting. Shifting the way they do when people are invested in the idea of the status quo and are flailing about looking for logical reasons to keep supporting it. The latest one I've heard is "Oh no, people will be driving stoned and cause traffic accidents". (You may have seen this as a banner ad on the web.) I'm glad to see that they are turning to more somewhat more reality-based arguments instead of "Reefer madness!" type arguments, which seem to have lost their power to scare. However, the "Oh no stoned drivers' argument, like most arguments for continuing the drug war, it ignores two very obvious facts:
- Pretty much anybody who wants to smoke weed is already smoking it. It's not like we're suddenly introducing a new intoxicant out of nowhere.
- Legalization doesn't mean "legalizing in every imaginable context". We have eminently reasonable laws against driving drunk, and against selling alcohol to kids; the common-sense thing to do is apply those same laws to marijuana: it should still be illegal to drive stoned and it should still be illegal to sell to minors.
Notably, the language of Prop. 19 allows for both of these exceptions, as it should.
Maintains existing laws against selling drugs to a minor and driving under the influence.
Maintains an employer's right to address consumption of cannabis that affects an employee's job performance.
So arguing that Prop. 19 is going to lead to a rash of stoned drivers is just disingenuous. So is the argument that it's going to lead to people being stoned on the street -- the proposition specifically allows use of "cannabis in a non-public place such as a residence or a public establishment licensed for on site marijuana consumption".
There are also strict penalties for selling marijuana to anyone under 21. And the proposition allows individual counties to opt in or opt out of allowing commercial sale within their borders, the same way that there are "dry" (i.e. no-alcohol) counties in various states.
In other words, Prop. 19 treats marijuana the same way we already treat alcohol, which is the only reasonable thing to do because the effects of marijuana are very similar to those of alcohol. Except that stoned people start fewer fistfights than drunk people.
Support Prop. 19 not just because it's a legalization measure, but because it's a really well thought-out and written legalization measure.