Pot Paternalism

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 14 2013 @ 3:39pm


Dreher and Frum argue that poorer Americans need to be protected from legalized marijuana. Kleiman intervenes:

Legalizing marijuana would make it easier for people to smoke pot. Some of those people would benefit from having that option; others would make choices they would come to regret. On average, the more socially advantaged will make better choices, and be better positioned to recover from their bad choices, than the less socially advantaged. To that extent, legalization favors the privileged over the less-privileged. Screen shot 2013-01-14 at 12.36.41 PMBut keeping marijuana illegal creates a different sort of temptation, by expanding the range of illegal money-making options. Compared to theft, commercial sex work, or hard-drug dealing, pot-dealing is less edgy and less risky.

Some of the people who take it up (not very many, in my view) may be better off than they would have been doing legal work; others will be better off than they would have been doing alternative illegal work. But, inevitably, some people will yield to the temptation for a quick buck and wreck their lives in doing so. And like those who yield to the temptation to smoke too much pot, they’re likely to come from the bottom half of the income/status distribution, not the top half. Just how damaging your youthful pot-dealing arrest will turn out to be could depend very strongly on how good a lawyer your parents can find for you.

On balance, are poor neighborhoods made better off by maintaining cannabis prohibition? Maybe so. But opponents of legalization haven’t made that case in anything like adequate detail.

For my part, I simply cannot understand how the alleged harm of pot can possibly outweigh the harm of being labeled a felon for the rest of your life, denied job opportunities, stigmatized and marginalized from mainstream society forever because of a mistake made early in your teens. And what exactly is the harm in marijuana? It can harm the development of the young brain – which is why I favor legalization because it enables us better to keep it away from kids. If you smoke it, it can be bad for your lungs – but pales in comparison with tobacco, which is usually smoked far more often than a joint. But vaporizers – which convert the THC into vapor – can largely mitigate any lung damage.

So a question to my friends Rod and David: why not make far more dangerous cigarettes illegal? They're more addictive and more harmful. Their response to the double standards charge is to accept it, but to argue that legalizing any more substances that might provide pleasure and relief is ipso facto a bad thing. This is simple Puritan paternalism. And like marriage equality, with each generation, it is collapsing under the weight of its own illogic.

(Photo: Getty. Chart: Nate Silver.)