Marijuana And Moralism


Last night, we had a spirited discussion of legalizing marijuana on AC360 Later. I’d post a clip but CNN’s clips don’t work when embedded. For a taste, go here. David Frum repeated Ross Douthat’s recent equation of marijuana and gambling legalization:

Both have been made possible by the same trend in American attitudes: the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy.

Like Conor Friedersdorf, I think that’s too crude an argument. I don’t think human beings will ever see law as entirely amoral, even as we try to account for real differences of opinion over what is moral and reach a workable, neutral-as-possible compromise. As Conor notes, our society has shifted toward new moralisms – “mandates to recycle, laws against dog-fighting, marital-rape statutes, trans-fat bans” – and away from old ones, rather than a move away from moralism altogether. Our sensitivity to the abuse of children is perhaps the greatest sign of a heightened sense of moralism, especially when one looks back and sees how appallingly blind so many were to it for so long. I know Ross will differ on the substance, but I doubt he will argue that my support for marriage equality stemmed from mere libertarianism (which would have led me to oppose all such marital benefits for everyone) but from a deep moral sense that we were (and are) violating the dignity of the homosexual person and perpetuating enormous pain for no obvious reason.

Now, the argument for legalizing marijuana is not quite the same. It’s much more based on the simple argument of personal liberty. But it has Kush_closeits moral components as well. The grotesquely disproportionate impact of Prohibition on African-Americans is an affront to any sense of morality and fairness, just as the refusal to research cannabis for its potential medical uses – to prevent seizures in children, for example – seems immoral to me. Some might argue that the right response to this is decriminalization, not legalization. But keeping marijuana illegal profoundly constrains the potential for medical research on it, sustains a growing and increasingly lucrative criminal industry, and does nothing to keep it from the sole cohort for whom it could do harm: teenagers.

Right now, teens can get it very easily – but because it is illegal, they have to be in contact with criminal elements. Last night, David Frum argued that legalizing it would increase the smoking of weed among the poor and socially marginalized, especially in the inner city, thereby blighting their prospects for advancement in society. It’s an important point to which I would provide several responses.

First off, of all the factors holding those kids back, marijuana-use is trivial, compared with family breakdown, shitty schools, and gang violence. And given the already endemic presence of the plant in the inner city, I doubt legalizing it would increase use in those neighborhoods – as opposed to middle-class areas where the stigma still exists as a major force. What it would do is sever the link between criminal gangs and a recreational pleasure that so many already enjoy. It would cripple the livelihoods of many drug dealers, which is why they would be very happy to join David in his campaign for decriminalization but no further. That’s a very sweet spot for the cartels.

weeed1.jpgThere’s also a premise buried in there that I would question: that weed always makes people lethargic or unmotivated or lacking in initiative. Sure, it does for many. But knowledge of the increasing sophistication of the drug – achieved during the last decade or so – has changed this. Sativa strains, for example, don’t make you sleepy; they can make you very alert and highly creative. Strains that are very high in CBD and low in THC don’t make you high at all. The complexity of the drug’s impact on the many human cannabinoid receptors renders its impact far more variable than crude Cheech and Chong mythology would suggest. And one must recall that the last three presidents all smoked marijuana in the past – the current one being a true enthusiast in Hawaii in the 1970s. Sometimes marijuana can unleash creative potential that would otherwise be buried for life. I’m not arguing that this is always the case, or that weed doesn’t harm many people’s lives. I am arguing that the weed-makes-you-a-failure argument is far too crude for today’s more sophisticated drug and that, besides, it inflicts far less harm than alcohol and tobacco.

I also start from an empirical fact. 23 million Americans smoke marijuana regularly, according to the latest survey. I don’t think the rule of law is well served when 23 million Americans do something that is both pragmatically condoned yet illegal.

It reminds me of the sodomy statutes that David also once defended on exactly the same grounds. In most states they were barely enforced. But millions of gay Americans were de facto committing crimes in their bedrooms. At some point the contradictions mount to such heights a resolution is essential. Anthony Kennedy cut that knot.

I take Ross’s point that we should not inherently distrust the contingent, if somewhat irrational, double standards that history has bequeathed to us. Our difference lies in two strains of conservatism – that which seeks to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” and that which sees society as constantly changing and the conservative task is to manage that change prudently. There are times for both impulses. But in determining what we should do in any contingent moment requires understanding why the change is happening and how to shape it for the good.

Ross doesn’t explain why he thinks the polls on marijuana legalization have shown such dramatic change in so little time. Or he does so by a general reference to more permissiveness. But when I think of a permissive period, the late 1960s seems like such a moment to me. It was the crucible that created neoconservatism, that turned Ratzinger from a reformist to a reactionary, that created so much of the conservative movement that defined the 1980s and ever since. And guess what? Legalizing pot back then was regarded as anathema:


As Conor notes, the key comparison here is support for legal abortion, a profound moral issue if ever there was one. That graph is very different:


Why would Americans change very little on one issue that is obviously related to morality but shift dramatically on another? I propose the reason is because people have seen marijuana use in their own lives and those of others, see its relative harmlessness, see its benefits (medical and recreational) and have changed their minds based on the accumulating evidence. I wonder what Ross’s explanation is?

(Photo: A picture taken on October 31, 2011 in center Amsterdam, shows cannabis seeds displayed in a tourist shop. By Nathalie Magniez/AFP/Getty.)