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Good Government/Reform Tue Apr 20 2010

The Liberty Tug-of-War

Today is April 20th, the day celebrated by many as Weed Day. It's a day when may law enforcement officials look the other way as large groups of marijuana users gather to smoke a bowl or joint in public in celebration of their right to be groovy.

Of course, potheads don't only toke grass on the 20th of April, but the date (4/20) carries special significance to adherents of cannabis culture. It originated at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, where students would meet at a statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 to smoke pot. Hence the term "420″ as a substitute for marijuana.

4/20 occurs a week and a half after another anniversary of government's involvement in failing to regulate the lives of private individuals and creating all sorts of nasty negative externalities because of it. On April 7th, 1933 the National Prohibition Act-also known as the Volstead Act, which established the legal definition of an intoxicating liquor-lost its teeth when the Congress deemed 3.2% alcohol beer to be legal. The 25th Amendment passed soon after, repealing the 18th Amendment altogether. Thus ended the only constitutional substance prohibition by the U.S. government.

You'd think by the year 2010 we would have dispelled the specious notions and expectations that justified substance prohibition, particularly in regard to marijuana. These outdated and unproven notions include claims that marijuana use compels people to criminal activity, makes people crazy (a la Reefer Madness), and is a gateway drug, leading people to use harder drugs like heroin and cocaine. (Drug companies got on board with prohibition, too, sensing a threat to their bottom lines were people allowed to use a plant to relieve pain.) Another outdated notion that few recall is that many who advocated for the criminalization of marijuana use, sale and cultivation cited the belief it would slow or stop immigration to American border states by Mexicans. This argument would be repeated ad nauseam by prohibitionists, laced with racial undertones.

Today, someone in the United States is arrested every 37 seconds due to a marijuana-related offense, and 87 percent of those are for simple possession, not sale or cultivation (both figures according to the Marijuana Policy Project). The federal government spends upwards of $20 billion a year fighting the so-called War On Drugs, and state governments pitch in another $30 billion. (Consider that much of the federal funds are spent overseas, while state funds are mostly spent domestically in the pursuit of American citizens.)

It's obvious this exercise is a colossal waste of money, talent, and human resources. Young nonviolent drug offenders-most of them doing time for marijuana-serve a prison sentence and are tainted for the rest of their lives. For these reasons and others the tide is shifting on the drug issue. California has become the poster child for liberalized drug laws. Marijuana dispensaries exist throughout the state, where people can buy marijuana as long as they have a prescription from a doctor (which isn't hard to get). The City of Los Angeles has moved recently to stem the spread of these dispensaries, but their moves are likely futile in part due to an initiative on the November ballot that would make marijuana use and sale legal in California.

Following in California's footsteps, moves are afoot in my home state of Illinois to make marijuana legal for medical uses, while, at the same time, politicians seek to ban marijuana imitators like K2, which, when smoked, imitates the effects of real marijuana. It's basically potpourri sprayed with a synthetic THC compound, and sells for three times the street value of marijuana. Why so much? Because they can. If you're going to be legal (for now), there's little competition short of moving to California.

Public opinion is shifting on marijuana just as it shifted on alcohol. Politicians are taking this shift as a cue to shape up drug laws or risk being labeled out of touch with the mainstream. Opinion leaders are leading the charge, sensing an opportunity for a "cool reform" of outdated laws with one, big juicy added benefit: money.

Similar to when people realized organized crime was a direct result of unenforceable alcohol prohibition laws, people in tune with today's government spending deficits and debt smell an opportunity in marijuana to right past wrongs. Unfortunately, their purposes are not so noble.

In my experience I have noticed that politicians are only willing to grant individuals a small amount of freedom if there's something bigger in it for them. The temptation in this case would be the new tax dollars available to them to spend by bringing a black market good into the legal marketplace. Were California to make marijuana legal (and the Feds were to go along with it), the tax revenues it would generate could pay down that state's ominous debt.

We're witnessing a liberty tug-of-war, where politicians see it prudent to grant individuals small amounts of freedom in exchange for others: money, choice of whether to buy or not buy a good, privacy, etc. Remember Newton's Third Law of Motion: "Every action has an opposite and equal reaction." The same push and pull happens between government and society.

This becomes particularly troublesome when you consider the many sick people who are living today in pain that could be treated by smoking a simple herb, yet they are denied legal access, and threatened with severe punishment if they obtain it through illicit means. The illegality of marijuana is therefore not only unconstitutional and unenforceable, but also inhumane.

Marijuana will likely be decriminalized and made legal in most of the country within the next 20 years. It will be taxed and regulated like alcohol, which is not only in politicians' interests, but also the most palatable solution for the majority of Americans. Marijuana today operates on a black but mostly free market, where prices are set by buyers and sellers, and there's plenty of competition in your own neighborhood. Making marijuana legal will create more competition--upsetting some current dealers--but will also distort prices through taxes, regulation, and, eventually, crony capitalism.

Taxing and regulating marijuana isn't the ideal solution for people who want to obtain some or begin a business, but it sure is better than the status quo.

Happy 4/20, everyone!

Cross-posted on my new blog: Third Step Thinker.

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