State pot votes spark freedom

Nov. 25, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — When it comes to real political change, the people almost always are light years ahead of the politicians, most of whom are so worried about re-election they take only carefully crafted positions that appeal to their core constituencies.

If anything, the general election reaffirmed the big-government status quo. But there was one good sign from the national results, as voters in Washington and Colorado passed, with strong majorities, measures legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Voters ignored the hysteria of Republican and Democratic politicians and did the right thing.

This is a serious issue that involves law-enforcement priorities, basic freedoms, criminal justice reform and basic economic issues involving black markets and taxation. Not that you’d know it from the silly pot jokes one hears whenever discussing this matter. (As an example, Colorado’s Democratic governor, an opponent of the state’s measure, warned supporters, “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.”)

Some conservatives have chalked up the pot-decriminalization victories in two Western states as the indication of the leftward nature of the election results, but that would be a misreading that will harm conservatives’ viability.

“What transpired in Colorado and Washington were disciplined efforts that forged alliances between liberals and tea party conservatives, often using public health arguments to advance their cause,” according to a recent New York Times analysis. “Tuesday’s vote on the measure in Colorado amounted to a popular revolt against the establishment.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the grassroots Left and Right would be united in favor of a “leave us alone” policy any more than it should surprise us that the supposedly liberal Obama administration has been even more zealous in prosecuting medical-marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado than the supposedly conservative Bush administration. Political authorities like to flex their muscle, and it’s up to the people to band together to preserve their freedoms.

Changing attitudes

Attitudes toward marijuana are changing dramatically, and if the GOP is serious about rebranding itself in the wake of its losses, this is a good place to start. No one is suggesting that conservatives suddenly act hip by embracing pot smoking. But Republicans should try to live up to their own stated principles of limited government and states’ rights by advocating a credible policy on this and other social issues.

During the election, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan made sensible points about medical marijuana. “My personal position on these issues has been let the states decide what they want to do with these things,” he said in a TV interview. That was before the Romney campaign caused him to do some back-tracking.

From a basic consistency standpoint, it’s bizarre that Republicans would advocate returning abortion to the states, which would be the effect of overturning Roe vs. Wade, yet insist that the federal government wantonly overturn the will of the people in those states that allow either medical marijuana or the recreational use of a substance that is demonstrably less harmful than the alcoholic beverages one can buy in any grocery store.

It’s not about weed, but about consistency. States’ rights means states’ rights, not states’ rights when we agree with the policies independent states embrace. The GOP’s rigidity only reinforces the cartoonish Democratic narrative that the party is beholden to religious moralists of the type who want to re-impose slavery and Prohibition. It also lets the Democrats get away with their stupidity on the drug war.

I was chatting recently with a couple in their mid-80s — staunch conservatives who told me how much they believe in ending the drug war and especially the war on marijuana users. These types of attitudes are becoming more common, yet the national parties are advancing attitudes from the “Reefer Madness” era.

Policy matters

There are so many public policy matters involved in this issue. Supporters argued that legalizing marijuana would allow law enforcement to focus resources on genuine crime issues rather than on this minor issue. It would provide tax revenue to revenue-hungry governments, although that’s an argument that leaves me cold given my desire to cut back government spending.

In its letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, a group of prominent law-enforcement officials argued:

“August Vollmer, father of professional policing and primary author of the Wickersham Commission report that served to bring an end to the prohibition of alcohol, opposed the enforcement of drug laws, saying that they ‘engender disrespect both for law and for the agents of law enforcement.’ … After 40 years of the drug war, people no longer look upon law enforcement as heroes but as people to be feared. This is particularly true in poor neighborhoods and in those of people of color, and it impacts our ability to fight real crime.” 

Some conservatives, including former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, endorsed legalization. Serious liberals have bucked the Democratic Party’s equally insane prosecution of the drug war, thus planting the seeds of a Left-Right pro-freedom coalition outside the confines of the two outdated national parties.

Critics of legalizing small amounts of marijuana are using scare tactics to encourage a heavy-handed federal response. We don’t know what the feds will do, given that they have been silent about the measures. Expect the worst. But Seattle police, for instance, have been coming up with reasonable guidelines for enforcement. Is it too much to ask authorities treat us like self-governing adults rather than subjects?

The market will work things out. In California, one can visit quiet pharmacies that are less ominous-looking than liquor stores and choose their medicine without harassment, provided they show a card. Some similarly regulated system will emerge for the sale of recreational marijuana.

The best news isn’t that pot will be legal in two states, but that the legalization victories could point the way to a broader, pro-freedom movement.

(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at: [email protected].)

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