Almost ten years ago, William F. Buckley penned a powerful column that reflected on a key issue of the time and the conservative movement in general.
In it, he included a powerful indictment of ossification of thought, saying "intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into
intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply
decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads
and reconsider is too great."
At the time, he referred to the strong resistance among conservatives and Republicans to loosening the marijuana laws. Buckley tended to oppose all of them, but most strongly advocated for the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
Opponents of loosening the laws on marijuana generally agree with the writer of this CNBC piece from 2010. The laws work. They reduce consumption while supposedly preventing higher rates of drug impaired driving. Opponents of marijuana use for medical purposes point out that such a policy could increase the incidence of recreational use.
The state of Missouri, in association with the National Crime Prevention Council, released a PDF at some unknown point that lists points of "damage" associated with use. These include lowered testosterone for men, higher testosterone for women, frustration, isolation, increased appetite, paranoia, and "exposure to illegal drug culture."
Cato Institute in 2010 reported on peer reviewed studies on marijuana use and risks. They found that the scientific community generally concluded that marijuana, while not risk free, brings fewer problems than most other drugs. Even most of the risk factors disappear when pot is consumed in some other way than smoking.
Some of the "damage" listed by occasional government warnings appear questionable. Does marijuana make some people paranoid, frustrated, and socially averse? Or do paranoid, frustrated, and socially averse people try to self-medicate with marijuana? It would be impossible to prove that cannabis caused these behaviors unless studies found a large sample of non users, then illegally induced them to use over a long period of time.
Even the idea that medical users of drugs may be tempted to use them recreationally supports legalization. People will abuse medical drugs after prescribed use, no doubt. No one argues that marijuana use is nearly as dangerous as narcotic drugs such as Oxy Contin, which have destroyed families and lives at devastating rates.
Some question keeping marijuana illegal even for recreational purposes. Critics of recreational pot use talk about reducing motivation and raise the specter of drugged driving. People foolish enough to drive around while intoxicated won't be stopped by the fact that pot is illegal. They will just drive drunk. And while it is definitely true that people high on pot have reduced motivation, this actually argues for its social utility. Drunk people are more likely to leave the house than high people.
Buckley's point was that doctrinaire conservatives must keep looking at the evidence supporting or disproving principles. Also, does support of one principle violate a more important one.
If a conservative advocates for states' rights and smaller federal government, how do federal marijuana laws fit into this picture?
If a conservative believes in maximum property rights, how can we justify the outlawing of a plant that God saw fit to put in the ground?
If conservatives define Bloomberg's health crusade and 1920s Prohibition as excesses of Progressivism, what does that say about the costs to taxpayers, society, and freedom of choice in terms of pot laws?
A cost-benefit analysis of marijuana enforcement must include the fact that states spent $3.6 billion on enforcement in 2010 alone. This includes the costs of arrest, incarceration, and trial. Can this money spent on mostly non violent offenders be spent in better ways, or sliced entirely from budgets?
Another problem lies in the credibility of law. If evidence of all kinds shows an illegal substance to be less damaging than many that are legal, the law looks absurd in the eyes of the people. Overall respect for law drops.
Since Buckley's 2004 piece, Republicans have tended to step back from the legalization debates. Like gay marriage, the issue has an aura of inevitability. Unlike gay marriage, Republicans have no constituency bothered enough by pot use to push them to fervently act to prevent legalization and/or decriminalization.
Old hippies and left-liberal college students find themselves in the odd position of having their favorite cause slapped down hard by the former chief of the choom gang. It cannot be comfortable for them to agree more with Buckley and George Will than with their idol president.
Good politics and good policy do not always combine. Here, the Republican Party can take a stand that can help cut budgets, increase individual liberty, and force the hand of the establishment Democratic Party.