The great thing about marijuana, it’s most devoted advocates will tell you, is that it’s not addictive. So it’s no big deal if you smoke it every day.
That’s what a lot of Californians will be doing if Proposition 19 passes on Tuesday, probably even more than are doing so now. And let’s face it, a whole lot of them are already getting a regular buzz on with little worry about being snatched by the Man and tossed in the jug.
If enacted, Proposition 19 (link in pdf format) would decriminalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and would empower state and local governments to tax and regulate commercial sales. Proponents, which include some retired police officers, claim these taxes would provide a windfall for cities and counties struggling to maintain local services, with the ironic result being that police and sheriff’s departments would be financed at least in part through the sale of marijuana. They further claim that once marijuana is decriminalized, police resources now devoted to its control and eradication can be diverted to more worthy targets like violent crime.
Maybe. And maybe not.
First of all, let us acknowledge that the so-called War on Drugs, like the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and for that matter the War on Anything Else We Wish to See Eradicated, has not been without its unintended and undesirable consequences, chief among which have been innocent people being killed and injured when police anti-drug raids have gone awry. Even taking these unintended consequences into account, the larger question remains: Would the country benefit from the elimination of the known and well-documented ill effects from the drug war if it came only at the price of the unknown and perhaps incalculable ill effects that would result if that war was abandoned?
And indeed, isn’t that the question that underlies drug prohibition in the first place? From a purely libertarian standpoint, the case for marijuana legalization is no more or less compelling than that for heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, or any other “hard” drug. Any citizen, a libertarian would argue, should be free to consume any substance he pleases to the extent that doing so does not impinge on the freedom of any other citizen. But all but the most ardent libertarians accept the notion that there is a continuum on which we place the various substances people choose to consume for their mood-altering effects, with alcohol and tobacco at one end — call it the legal end — and, say, PCP at the opposite, or illegal, end.
The questions then become, first, at which point along that continuum do we place the bright line between legal and illegal, and second, on which side of that line should we place marijuana? No one would argue that marijuana is as harmful as PCP, nor should we accept the claim that it’s harmless. But even if marijuana is truly no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco, do we wish to see what societal costs would result if it became just as widely consumed as these two already legal substances? Is there anyone who would argue there would be none?
Advocates for Proposition 19 decry the “waste” of resources inherent in arresting and prosecuting people for mere possession of marijuana, and some would have you believe that California’s prisons are overflowing with harmless and otherwise law-abiding pot smokers. But while marijuana, as the most widely used illegal substance, accounts for most of the drug arrests in California, simple possession almost never results in incarceration. Of the 170,000 people in California prisons in 2008, only 1,500 were doing time for marijuana violations, and of these my educated guess is that virtually all were sentenced for repeat offenses involving marijuana sales. I’m aware of cases in which people were arrested with hundreds and even thousands of pounds of marijuana and still were sentenced to no more than a few months in the county jail and three years of probation.
And in my recent practical experience it hasn’t seemed as though many people are overly concerned — or concerned at all — with the prospect of being arrested for marijuana possession. I’ve been at crime scenes with a murder victim lying on the sidewalk and smelled marijuana wafting from nearby windows. How worried about getting busted can you be if you’re sparking up a joint with a dozen cops standing outside your door?
Indeed, the California Health and Safety Code prescribes the maximum punishment for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana as a $100 fine. And that applies only to the diminishing number of California pot smokers who have as yet failed to avail themselves of the state’s farcical medical marijuana program, through which anyone with a little cash and a little creativity can have a five-minute session with a doctor, many of dubious credentials, who will recommend marijuana as a treatment for whatever malady the “patient” claims to be afflicted by. (For a humorous look at a similar program in Michigan, see Matt Labash’s “Gone to Pot,” in the Oct. 10, 2010, issue of the Weekly Standard.)
But the pothead lobby is not content with the protections afforded by the medical marijuana charade, and so Proposition 19 comes before the voters on Tuesday. Among its prospective benefits, advocates say, is the denial of profits to violent Mexican drug cartels whose trade will be usurped by local and legal sources for marijuana. A recent study (link in pdf format) by the RAND Corporation disputes this assertion, but even if the cartels were undone by domestic marijuana, it’s naive to think that people who think nothing of beheading those who oppose or obstruct them will put down their guns and take to selling belts, serapes, and cheap jewelry on the beach at Ensenada.
No, they’ll probably do what other unemployed Mexicans do: they’ll come here, and they’ll do the crimes Americans won’t do.