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I stand as guilty as the next guy of using the words “conservative” and “libertarian” interchangeably. Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of either term. When used, they conjure up whatever baggage a given mind associates with them, rather than what was intended. In the realm of politics, these terms get mushed together in an effort to rally coalition. Whatever a conservative and a libertarian are respectively, it would seem there aren’t enough of either for each to work alone.

That said, certain issues bring to the fore fundamental differences which exist between conservatives and libertarians. In the wake of Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana, drug prohibition gains fresh prominence as one such issue.

Prolific conservative author, editor, and publisher John Hawkins, who also contributes to PJ Media, provides fodder for discerning those differences in a recent piece at Townhall. “5 Reasons Marijuana Should Remain Illegal” lays out arguments which fall into three categories distinguishing conservatives from libertarians.

Understanding these differences requires some working definitions. Broadly speaking, a conservative seeks to maintain existing institutions and uphold or restore traditions. A libertarian prioritizes individual rights above all else, even at the expense of institutions and traditions. One can be a “conservative-libertarian” by supporting an institution like the family or the church without condoning the use of force to that end. The philosophical line of demarcation separates collectivism from individualism. With that said, let’s explore 3 ways marijuana sorts conservatives from libertarians.

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1) Collective Responsibility

The perception shared by many that little difference exists between Democrats and Republicans persists because little fundamental difference exists between progressives and conservatives. Each orients toward opposing poles on the same axis, a spectrum of collectivism. In his piece at Townhall, Hawkins collectivizes responsibility for individual lives. He writes:

How many lives are we willing to flush down the drain because a significant number of Americans tried pot a handful of times in their lives, got away with it and now feel guilty about it?

That’s quite a presumption. Could it be that opponents of prohibition simply believe it’s wrong?

The greater presumption is that you and I share responsibility for a third party’s behavior. We don’t. People’s lives, like their liberty and their property, remain theirs to dispose of as they wish. That principle proves Hawkins’ many arguments regarding addiction and health hazards moot.

Hawkins opens his piece wondering how we arrived at the point “where Big Gulps are being banned in New York while the welcome mat for potheads is being rolled out in Colorado.” Yet, he never offers a significant distinction between Big Gulps and pot. He cities studies which herald the harm marijuana inflicts when consumed habitually. We stand wondering how his argument against pot differs substantially from Bloomberg’s against soda pop. We can argue over the scope of harm. Yet the question remains whether any harm inflicted upon self ought to be public business. Answering in the affirmative expresses collectivism. As individualists, libertarians lay no claim over their neighbor’s judgment.

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2) Making the World a Better Place (at the Point of a Gun)

Hawkins concludes his piece by sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the condition of liberty. He asks:

Is legalizing marijuana going to make this a better country or a worse one? Would you want to live in a neighborhood filled with people who regularly smoke marijuana? Would you want your kids regularly smoking pot?

That’s one of many reference to kids smoking marijuana in the article, a scenario precisely no one advocates. The behavior of children remains the domain of their parents or guardians in any case, whether we have prohibition or not. Parents don’t want their children drinking either. Yet liquor remains legal for adults.

Again, we see the collectivizing of responsibility. You and I stand responsible, not just for our own conduct and welfare, but for making the country a better place.

Better than what? According to whom? A leftist definition of “better” includes guaranteed healthcare, food, and housing. Does the so-called social utility of policy deem it appropriate, or its effect upon rights?

People enjoying liberty craft their own definition of “better” in an individual pursuit of happiness. You won’t find me arguing that habitual marijuana use leads to lasting happiness. But I also won’t keep a man from arriving at his own conclusion.

The drive to make the world a better place can metastasize into forcing others to accept a world we prefer. History shows that such prohibition fosters outcomes worse for all.

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3) Recognizing That Force Breeds Force

Hawkins seems to have missed the lesson of prohibition, or at least misread it:

There’s a reason pot was made illegal in the first place and quite frankly, the only reason alcohol and cigarettes are legal is because they’re so deeply ingrained in our society that we can’t get rid of them.

The implication rings clear. If it were conceivable to prohibit alcohol and tobacco, Hawkins would support it.

That position intrigues for two reasons. First, the very studies which Hawkins cite show that we haven’t eliminated marijuana by prohibiting it. If the elimination of a substance stands as the object of prohibition, it has obviously failed and ought to be abolished on the basis Hawkins provides. That yields to the second point.

Since when does the law rest upon any feasibility of its enforcement? Murder remains illegal no matter how many murders go unsolved. The same can be said of rape, burglary, fraud, and so forth. We keep those activities illegal, not because we can stop them all, but because they violate individual rights. Perhaps the reason Hawkins reluctantly tolerates the use of tobacco and alcohol is because he intuitively knows they trespass upon no one.

When we start initiating force rather than retaliating against it, which stands as the fundamental difference between prohibiting something like pot and prohibiting something like murder, we breed more force. Alcohol prohibition fostered organized crime. So has marijuana prohibition.

Worse yet, the initiation of force in its various forms becomes its own justification. Consider another of Hawkins’ scare tactics:

Do we move on from [marijuana] to Crack, Heroin or Meth? Some people would say, “If they want to do it, great, then it’s no business of ours.” But, you can also bet that those same people will be complaining about all the junkies and welfare cases that will be created by the policy they endorsed.

Who’s arguing for welfare? Get rid of that too. Get rid of all rights-violating policies and programs. Don’t use them to rationalize more.


Who owns your life? The answer defines the government’s role. To support drug prohibition, you must concede that your life belongs in some portion to the state. If your life is yours and yours alone, you may dispose of it as you see fit. That’s the bottom line in this and all public policy debates.

A big part of the reason anti-drug campaigns lack credibility is because they present a case which does not comport with experience. No one argues that smoking weed 27 out of 30 days, as subjects in one study cited by Hawkins did, proves healthy. Nevertheless, people retain the right to judge for themselves what trade-offs they are willing to endure in pursuit of happiness. In that way, no fundamental difference exists between Twinkies, Big Gulps, booze, or pot.