By Benjamin Cole
Can anything good come out of Mexico?
That’s the central question in the minds of millions of Americans who have favored protectionism over of free trade, gun-toting Minutemen at the border instead of substantive immigration reform and a largely ineffective and draconian system of laws that criminalize cannabis (often produced in, or trafficked through, Mexico) instead of having a serious conversation about the terrible legacy of America’s so-called War on Drugs.
There are stale and reductionist arguments on both sides. Is marijuana a dangerous gateway drug that leads to addiction, lethargy and various social ills? Or is smoking marijuana a relatively harmless little pleasure that affects no person but the user himself?
I suggest that a way forward exists in the debate whereby society can generally discourage marijuana usage without the full force of criminal statute. But first, allow me to rehearse some facts.
More than 1,500 people were killed between January and March of this year in the drug wars that have raged in many Mexican cities. To put things in perspective, this is 30 times the number of Americans who have died in the Iraq war since President Obama took office.
A growing number of politicians from both the left and the right are considering a shift in our marijuana policies. As early as 1968, the patron saint of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, was arguing in favor of marijuana legalization. Most libertarians have long advocated the move, and it’s not that far of a stretch for liberals who believe a woman has the right to abort a fetus from the womb to support the right to inhale cannabis into the lungs.
There are four basic approaches to the federal policy question of marijuana possession for either medical or recreational purposes.
First, the United States could legalize marijuana possession altogether, establish regulations for its production and distribution and then tax it to generate desperately needed federal revenues.
Second, we could decriminalize marijuana possession, a move that would impose civil fines similar to those resulting from traffic tickets instead of a criminal trial and a prison sentence. Under such a law, marijuana use would still be discouraged, but in a way that generates revenue for state and local governments.
Third, Congress or the president could move to declassify marijuana as a Schedule-1 substance under federal drug laws, thereby diminishing its investigative and prosecutorial priority with the Justice Department.
Or finally, as Attorney General Eric Holder has recently signaled, the laws criminalizing marijuana possession could remain on the books and the feds simply choose not to enforce them. In this regard, marijuana laws will soon suffer the fate of other ignored moral statutes: they will die the death of universal neglect. The existence of a law, however, implies its enforcement. What purpose non-enforced laws serve in the body politic is hard to understand.
There are solid reasons to consider the decriminalization of marijuana: the undoing of a violent culture that grows in the fertile soils of prohibition; the burgeoning and burdensome cost of arresting and prosecuting nearly 1 million people every year who possess only small amounts of marijuana; and the fact that some studies suggest nearly 80% of Americans under the age of 35 and one-third of all Americans attest to having at least tried marijuana.
But the repeal of marijuana laws should not occur without a serious national conversation, for the rationale of decriminalization must rest on a principle more enduring than personal preferences and utilitarian cost-benefit analyses.
The soul of America needs to be reintroduced to the basic distinctions between personal liberty and commercial vice. For instance, there was a time in America when fornication, sodomy and adultery were criminal acts. Over time, however, these laws rusted out like an old jalopy, resting unserviceable on the cinder blocks of justice.
To be sure, adultery — and, to a lesser degree, pre-marital sex — are still regarded as immoral acts, but the various states have decided that these do not rise to the level of criminal prosecution. A zone of privacy, if you will, has been safeguarded in American sexual mores.
Prostitution, on the other hand, remains almost universally illegal. This is because a particular vice like fornication or adultery on a personal level is exacerbated when a person trades and traffics their vice on the black market.
In the same way, Americans should be educated to make moral distinctions between the personal use of marijuana, punishable by an appropriately assessed civil fine and the mass production and distribution of marijuana for profit, punishbale by necessarily heightened criminal penalties.
A very few cases of medical necessity notwithstanding, America should generally discourage marijuana use. But we can do so in the same way we discourage speeding in construction zones or failure to wear seat belts rather than the way we criminalize more egregious and corrupting social vices.