Where there’s smoke, there’ll soon be fire

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

For reasons I won’t detour to distill here, Colorado has become something of a testing grounds for the rest of the nation. Occasionally, Colorado tests conservative ideas — the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, for example. But more often than not, policies tried out in the Centennial State have their genesis on the left. Radical environmental lawsuits, fracking bans, gun control laws and more see their proponents flocking to the central Rockies to see if their cockamamie ideas have any chance of survival elsewhere.

The most well-known test case currently is marijuana legalization, Colorado becoming one of two states to formally make the drug legal for recreational use.

Drug legalization is a complex issue that doesn’t fall neatly within ideological boundaries. Drug legalization traditionally has been a rallying cause for the left — partly because drug laws constitute one more institution standing in the way of radically altering society and partly, one suspects, because the products’ use is essential to the formulation and justification of many liberal economic, social and foreign policies. But drug legalization isn’t solely a concern of the left. It has many apostles on the right, both libertarian and conservative, as well.

To be sure, there are some valid conservative arguments to legalization, not the least of which include justified concern the “war on drugs” is little more than an expensive boondoggle that tends to feed a leviathan government. Under the traditionally conservative ideas of a federalist or republican system, individual states ought to serve as the laboratories for public policy.

Right-wing drug legalization supporters are in pretty good company. Milton Friedman, one of the last century’s finest economists, was on board with the idea. And virtually no debate with a conservative on the topic concludes without the legalization supporter pointing out triumphantly American conservatism’s modern-day patron saint, William F. Buckley Jr., was famously supportive of legalizing marijuana.

It’s just as commonplace, unfortunately, for those who cite Buckley’s laissez faire position over pot to mischaracterize his argument. As he pointed out repeatedly, Buckley saw legalization as a way to address the drug problem. He believed marijuana use would be more effectively controlled using society’s “little platoons,” to use Burke’s turn of phrase, rather than government. If enough educational and social derision were brought to bear, marijuana abuse would be sufficiently handled or at least limited to acceptable levels. He likened marijuana to venereal disease. It’s perfectly legal to contract syphilis, but the general societal condemnation of doing so mitigates against doing so. Buckley thought applying similar social sanctions against drugs, coupled with their legalization — except in selling to children, for which offense he advocated the harshest of all possible penalties — would have the desired social outcome.

Most of the pro-legalization crowd today, however, falls well short of subscribing to that approach. The current narrative is there’s no problem, that marijuana is a harmless broadleaf no worse than alcohol. This coincides with a larger campaign to normalize pot, such as that engaged in by Hollywood, which rarely misses an opportunity to portray normal, successful people as regular users.

Hollywood and reality fail to square with one another. The active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a fat-soluble, psychoactive compound that induces the “high” along with other physical and mental problems. Unlike water-soluble alcohol, which is eliminated relatively quickly through sweat, urine and so forth, the fat-soluble THC goes after the fatty tissues, (the brain, for example) and stays for several days or weeks.

It’s important to make distinctions.

A drug with the capacity to do such individual harm — at the very first draw, mind you marijuana is not like the glass of wine that most people can drink and not be impaired — necessarily brings with it wider social ills. These have to be dealt with one way or another if society is to continue to function.

The argument is often raised that drug abuse is a victimless crime — that one ought to be able to what one wishes with his or her own body as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. I can buy that. The problem with drug abuse (yes, including marijuana) is the harm is seldom confined to the individual, but translated into society in general. And not in the specious, vague manner attributed to large soft drinks and French fries, but in real, measurable impacts.

The criminal, medical, productivity and social problems associated with widespread marijuana use will need to be dealt with. Ironically, Colorado’s experiment in marijuana liberty will most likely contribute to the supercharged growth of a leviathan government.