Will Legalization Hurt Poor Minorities?

Frum and I debate the question:

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Reihan opposes full commercial legalization because he fears it will harm the poor and black:

To say that we ought to legalize marijuana because marijuana doesn’t hurt anyone is to discount the fact that legalization will cause a collapse in the price of marijuana and that this price collapse will lead to an increase in consumption that will have unpredictable, Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 7.20.41 PMand uneven, consequences. Right now, the uneven consequences of marijuana criminalization are particularly insidious. Though incarceration for marijuana consumption is rare, the enforcement of marijuana laws harms poor people far more than rich people, and black people more than non-black people. It seems likely, however, that a post-legalization world would also harm poor people more than rich people, and black people more than non-black people, albeit via different channels. In both cases, it is people raised in chaotic households, people who suffer from poor impulse control, and people who live in violent, high-poverty neighborhoods who will suffer the most. That is why the way we regulate marijuana should be informed by an effort to protect these populations. Full commercial legalization is not the best way to do that. And if you find this notion paternalistic, well, you’re on to something. The reason I oppose full commercial legalization is that I have enormous faith in the ability of entrepreneurs to stimulate demand, and I think it is absolutely right and appropriate for governments, ideally local and state governments, to be able to apply the brakes.

I don’t think it’s crazy to think that legalization will increase marijuana use. I think it’s highly likely – and that it’s something we need to think creatively about. But the data from nearly-legal California these past few years does not suggest the worst scenario Reihan worries about. He concedes that the cost of Prohibition is felt most acutely by the very populations he worries about. He favors rather small-scale Uruguay-style mom-and-pop and personal pot growing rather than commercialization. I’m afraid that rather lovely Jeffersonian idea won’t fly in modern capitalist America.

The possibility that there will be substitution of pot for booze is a real one – and that mix would be a terrific thing for poor families and kids. But that too is not really knowable in advance. My view is that the best response to these kinds of conundrums is federalism. We can watch Colorado and Washington closely; we can assess their responses to contingent and unexpected consequences (of which there will be some). We can see how this works on a small scale. When you’re dealing with this kind of social change, gradualism is necessary. That’s why I remain a federalist on marriage equality. These things take time – or rather they take their own time in the minds and souls of citizens.

Which is where I would challenge Damon Linker on his argument that neither marriage equality nor marijuana legalization are conservative positions.

If your view is that conservatism opposes all change, period, he’s right. But that’s a caricature. Burkean conservatism is defined in some part by the insight that sometimes you have to change something for the society to stay the same. When a new social cohort emerges – like out gay people in large numbers – you can ignore it, you can oppose any legal or social adjustment to the new reality, or you can try to integrate it into the current way of life of a society in a way that disrupts it the least. In my mind, opening the institution of civil marriage to gay people – and doing so gradually through federalism and public debate – is a quintessentially conservative position.

Ditto marijuana legislation. When a majority of Americans favor it, when the costs of Prohibition are wrecked lives by the hundreds of thousands, when that wreckage is racially biased to an insane degree, and when you can try things out slowly – first with medical marijuana and now with federalism – then this is a conservative position. Hey, even National Review (thanks to the legacy of WFB) supports it.

Conservatism is not about resisting all change; it’s about adjusting to constantly changing human culture in as careful and as humane and as realistic a manner possible. Of course we can disagree about whether this issue or that is the right one. But Edmund Burke, to cite the father of modern conservatism, favored much more freedom for the American colonists, serious reform of imperial malpractice. By Damon’s light, only reactionaries have a right to call themselves conservatives. I beg to differ.