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Weed the nonsense out of marijuana advocacy

By Eric Harrison     11/4/10 7:00pm

Alas, it seems the campaign for marijuana legalization will not be moving forward in 2010 after all. California's Proposition 19 - the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use for those over 21 - was defeated on Tuesday, dashing the hopes of those who sought to use it as a platform to challenge bans elsewhere. It seems very likely that a majority of students support legalization. If you count yourself among this group, give yourself a pat on the back - you've reached the correct conclusion.But as in all matters, how you arrive at the correct conclusion is just as important as the fact that you arrive at the correct conclusion. Considering this, the pro-legalization crowd has been woefully inept. The legalization arguments have become largely predictable, but none of them offer a compelling reason to justify legalization and all of them foolishly concede far too much to those who favor prohibition - and in doing so, make the job of the prohibitionists that much easier. On Prop 19, as has so often been the case, proponents of legalization were their own worst enemies.

Proponents argued that it would reduce or eliminate the violence associated with the drug trade. To make this argument, though, is to make a dangerous concession: that marijuana can be outlawed or legalized depending on the effect it's thought to have on violent crime. What if data suggested that legalization would do nothing to reduce violence, or that it would in fact increase it significantly? Would proponents then accept the rightness of prohibition?

They argued that legalization would generate tremendous tax revenues while reducing the need for police and prison expenditures, which would ease California's budgetary problems. Again, the unspoken concession is an awful one: that marijuana's legal status can be changed based on whether doing so will allow the government to exploit it for more tax dollars. What if it were only used by a small minority of individuals and therefore less lucrative as a source of taxation? What if data suggested that the benefits of legalization would be outweighed by the wave of unemployment among police officers, prison guards and court officials? Would proponents back down from their demands?

They argued that marijuana is an entirely or largely harmless drug which is neither addictive nor damaging to one's health. Yet again, proponents made an unwise concession: that substances like marijuana can be banned or regulated if the government decides that using them is harmful to one's health. What if it could be shown that smoking marijuana is in fact addictive or harmful to one's mental and physical health? Would this be a convincing reason for proponents to drop their objections?

By making these arguments, proponents of legalization set themselves up for failure more effectively than any Nixon or Reagan ever could. Offering merely practical reasons for supporting legalization carries the risky implication that merely practical reasons can justify prohibition as well. Why accept this unnecessary risk?

There is only one correct reason - and only one necessary reason - to support marijuana legalization: like prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco and so-called "unhealthy" foods, all prohibitions on drug use violate the principle of individual self-ownership. This point alone is enough to complete the case for legalization and invalidate prohibitions on marijuana use. Why venture needlessly into the muck of "practical" arguments about crime rates and economic effects, then? Arguing that legalization will have some positive effect does nothing to advance the case against the silly practice of prohibition, but it does offer those who would deprive individuals of their right to toke an easy way to outmaneuver pro-legalization advocates.

When considering an argument for marijuana legalization or any other proposal, always approach it with caution and ask yourself: What premise underlies this argument, and would my opinion be wrong if facts changed in relation to that premise? Be suspicious of arguments even if they appear to support your conclusion, and take care to weed out the ones that do more harm than good by giving away too much.

Remember that you are your own master, and that the only valid function of law is to punish those who try to be the masters of others. Your right to eat, drink and smoke as you see fit requires no "practical" justification.

Remember, too, that the standard by which the legitimacy of laws must be judged is not the "practical" effects they will have and whether those effects are deemed desirable, but rather the extent to which they conform to the principles of individual self-ownership and individual rights. Since the act of ingesting marijuana does not in and of itself violate the rights of any other individual, it is not the subject of legitimate government regulation or prohibition. That's all there is to be said.

There is a great victory to be won here against the backward nosiness of those who aren't content merely to abstain from marijuana themselves, but it will not be won if those who take the right side in the conflict are incompetent at making their case. The prohibitionists are trying very hard to ensure that this battle is fought not on the level of principle - where they would surely lose - but on the level of practicality and social impact. Don't help them do it.

Eric Harrison is a Wiess College alumnus.

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