Can GOP quit weed-whacking?

July 12, 2010

If the California Republican Party were serious about its oft-stated calls for limiting government, then it should be championing an initiative on the November ballot that would reduce government interference in our lives, increase the efficiency of law-enforcement, protect property rights and help fill the gaping hole in the state budget by following the principles of the marketplace.

To make it even more enticing, this initiative echoes arguments advocated by free-market heroes Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley. Even better, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, the longtime market critic, has been stumping against this seemingly popular measure. Support for it could give the GOP an issue to exploit in the governor’s race.

As you can tell by my reluctance to mention the specific measure, it’s obvious this is something the GOP and its candidate for governor, Meg Whitman, are unlikely to embrace. I’m referring to Proposition 19, which would legalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana for recreational uses. Despite the expected protests of Prohibition supporters – mainly conservative moralists and law enforcement officials who benefit from the big-government regimen – the initiative would not allow anyone to smoke weed in public or drive while impaired or provide the stuff to minors. Only licensed businesses could sell it. Local governments would have the right to impose every manner of regulation on marijuana. This is more restrictive than what I would devise, but its passage would be a net gain for freedom and sanity.

Not surprisingly, Brown doesn’t understand the dynamics of the current drug war. Speaking in June to the California District Attorneys Association in Monterey, he said, “Every year we get more and more marijuana and every year we find more guys with AK-47s coming out of Mexico and going into forests and growing more and more dangerous and losing control.”

Actually, the Mexican drug lords operate as violently as they do because drugs are illegal. The very illegality of them drives up prices and makes it so lucrative to sell them that the most ruthless cartels tend to be the most successful ones. If drugs were legal, then licensed, insured and professional companies would control the market. Prices would be lower, so hard-drug addicts would commit fewer crimes to support their habit. There would be no gunbattles in the streets, less political corruption, and disputes would be handled in the courts.

As blogger Jon Walker put it in his response to Brown’s economically illiterate comments in Monterey, “Before alcohol prohibition, the vast majority of alcohol sales were controlled by legal concerns – breweries like Anheuser Busch, distillers and saloon owners. Once legal companies couldn’t sell alcohol anymore, the business was taken over by criminal enterprises.” As many libertarians often note, Budweiser dealers don’t duke it out over market share.

In his 1991 speech calling the drug war a “socialist enterprise,” Nobel economist Friedman asked, “Whose interests are served by the drug war? … The major beneficiaries from drug prohibition are the drug lords, who can maintain a cartel they would be unable to maintain without current government policy.” This reminds me of another libertarian phrase about the “Baptists and the bootleggers” – the two groups who most zealously supported alcohol Prohibition. The first group supported it for moral reasons, whereas the latter supported it (and often funded the former) in service to less-lofty goals.

Prop. 19, of course, deals only with marijuana, which is far less dangerous than alcohol and which has, according to initiative sponsors, been used by approximately one-third of the country’s population, most of whom manage to live law-abiding, productive lives. Those who oppose the initiative are, in effect, saying that it’s better that police resources are squandered in a pursuit of pot smokers and that the government should arrest, fine and even jail people who prefer the pleasures of marijuana to those of a vodka martini or craft brew (my preferences!).

Conservatives who oppose legalization should at least dispense with the fiction that they believe in free choices and less government.

In a 1996 article in National Review, William F. Buckley touched on the most troubling aspect for conservatives of the drug war: “I have not spoken of the cost to our society of the astonishing legal weapons available now to policemen and prosecutors; of the penalty of forfeiture of one’s home and property for violation of laws which, though designed to advance the war against drugs, could legally be used … as penalties for the neglect of one’s pets. I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana.”

And, Buckley calculated, the drug war appears to cause more death and destruction than drug use. He surely would have understood why the NAACP has embraced Prop. 19, given the high (and growing) arrest rate for African Americans for pot use and the harm it does to young people to have an arrest on their record as they try to build careers.

Furthermore, “there is little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions [against drug use] and rate of consumption,” according to initiative supporters. This can use deeper study, but it makes sense. I can afford any amount of alcohol I could possibly want, yet I only drink a moderate amount. For the vast majority of people, consumption is based on a variety of social factors and preferences, not on the availability of the product.

But I’ll leave the utilitarian arguments to others. Suffice it to say that government should not be in the business of waging moral crusades that fine, jail and harass average citizens for victimless crimes and which enrich the criminal class. Here’s one area where California might be pushing in the right direction.

-Steven Greenhut

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