|Is this guy stoned or what?|
Baker Institute at Rice University has been hosting an online
debate this month to answer the question, "Will legalizing
marijuana improve civil liberties?" While all four participants
have a different opinion on what the legal status of marijuana
should be, three of the four are in agreement that the way drug
laws are enforced--particularly, the absurd degree of flexibility
granted to law enforcement officers--poses a threat to civil
liberties, and that liberalizing pot laws--to one degree or
another--would restore civil liberties.
Only the fourth and final participant in the Baker Institute's
debate bothered to argue that removing or reducing penalties for
marijuana possession would reduce civil liberties. That
person is Kevin Sabet, a former staffer in Pres. Obama's White
House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the co-founder of Project
SAM, and the "quarterback
of the anti-drug movement." Here's
The argument that legalization would improve civil libertiesRight up front, it's important to note that Sabet is being
rests on the notion that if marijuana was legal, there would be
less of a need for the criminal justice system intruding on the
lives of otherwise peaceful marijuana smokers. But it is unclear
that legalization would greatly reduce criminal justice
(specifically law enforcement) involvement in society. Already,
only about two-tenths of 1 percent of all prison inmates appear to
be incarcerated in prison simply for marijuana use.
Since legalization would increase use, it is important to
briefly dwell on the possibility that legalization might decrease
civil liberties, especially for vulnerable populations like
children. Marijuana smoking during pregnancy has been shown to
decrease birth weight, most likely due to the effects of carbon
monoxide on the developing fetus. Marijuana addicts 1 out of every
6 children who ever try the drug. Marijuana affects the developing
brain in acute ways; one recent study found that persistent, heavy
young users had on average 6-8 lower IQ points by age 38 relative
to non-users (even if heavy use stopped in adulthood).
Marijuana’s harm extends beyond that done to the individual.
Marijuana intoxication at least doubles the risk of getting into a
car accident; costs from marijuana-related hospital stays are
substantial; marijuana addiction costs the state money for
John Stuart Mill famously wrote that “… over himself, over his
own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill argued that
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over
any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm
to others.” Since marijuana can cause addiction, forcing people to
lose control over their own self and in the process inflict harms
onto others, its use can decrease overall civil liberties. And
since legalization would undoubtedly increase marijuana use in
society, we might expect a reduction, not increase, in civil
liberties if marijuana was legalized.
deceptive when he suggests that prison is the only way the
government intrudes on the "lives of peaceful marijuana smokers."
Monitoring and mandatory testing (which
Sabet supports) is an intrusion; terminating the parental
rights of marijuana-growing and -using parents is an intrusion;
asset forefeiture is an intrusion; mugshots are an intrusion;
handcuffs are an intrusion.
Three-quarters of a million annual pot arrests--even if only a
fraction of them led to incarceration--equals three-quarters of a
million government intrusions.
But there's a huge definitional problem here, too. Negative
rights--which is what civil liberties are, and what the Bill of
Rights is a collection of--exist to protect U.S. citizens from
their government and its agents. This is why the First Amendment
begins with "Congress shall make no law..." and not "Mike shall
make no choice..." In the event that addiction reduces my ability
to make healthy choices, my constitutional rights to speech,
religious observance, and assembly, and to be spared unreasonable
search and seizure, remain intact. In the event that irresponsible
drug use causes someone to hurt me, or me to hurt someone else,
those rights are what keep us from being cruelly punished or locked
away without a trial, while the criminal code nominally assures
that justice is done.
Simply put: Drug users cannot erode civil liberties. Nor, for
that matter, can Kevin Sabet. Only government has that power.
H/t Diane Wattles Goldstein