In a recent interview in the New Yorker, President Barack Obama, whose proclivity for engaging in illegal drug use has been well-documented, went on record as saying that he thinks smoking marijuana is less harmful to the individual than drinking alcohol. It would be easy to point out the hypocrisy of a man whose future would have been dramatically different had he been convicted under the same laws his administration now enforces, and indeed, many have. But that’s not what I intend to do.
The president’s comment also sparked a debate over its factual accuracy. Is it true that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol? If it is true, what does that say about a legal system that permits the more dangerous drug while prohibiting the less dangerous? Once again, isn’t this the height of hypocrisy? Once again, this is not a debate I care to enter.
The reason I am uninterested in delving into these topics, aside from the fact that they have already been adequately covered by others, is that both lines of attack ask the wrong questions and distract from the core principles that underlie the discussion of drug legalization. It is these principles that I want to address.
When we debate whether marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, the implicit assumption behind the argument is either 1) that marijuana should be legal because alcohol is or 2) that alcohol should be illegal because marijuana is. The implication is that a product’s level of dangerousness is grounds for its prohibition. But this is not how laws should, or in fact do work.
Alcohol is not legal because some experts have deemed it safe (in many cases it isn’t); it is legal because we have decided that people have the right to inflict that particular danger on themselves.
Every decision we make can have health consequences. Getting behind the wheel of a car is more dangerous by far than drinking a glass of beer. The standard we have for what is legal and what is not is clearly not based purely on how dangerous some product or other is, nor should it be.
A system of laws should be based on principle or, failing that, at least be consistent. If we want to make the argument that banning dangerous activities is justified purely because they are dangerous, then we must be willing to accept bans on driving, swimming in the ocean, tobacco and most organized sports. The other option is to let people do what they want so long as they do not hurt anyone else. The latter seems to me to be a far more just and consistent policy than the former.
Too often, advocates for liberty allow themselves to be baited into non-sequitur discussions and accept false premises in framing their arguments. Whenever a libertarian goes on television and argues that marijuana should be legal “because it is safe,” he undermines the very thesis of the philosophy he claims to embrace. Whether or not marijuana is more dangerous than other drugs is a question that has no bearing on whether it should be prohibited. The only question that matters is: are we willing to throw people in jail for engaging in activities that harm no one but themselves?
President Obama’s comments underscore his core belief, and the beliefs of the progressives who support him, in the state as a nanny to the people. The libertine attitudes of some on the left towards matters of sex and drugs are not born of a belief in freedom, but rather a dispute over facts. We should be permitted certain activities because they are not harmful, not because the state has no right to prohibit them in the first place.
“Daddy, you should let me take the car out because I’ll be careful with it.”
Not, “It’s my car and you have no authority to tell me what to do with it!”
The latter attitude is the one consistent with liberty, and the one we should all adopt as a matter of general principle, in debates over the drug war as well as in all other areas of public policy.