On November 2, California voters will be given an opportunity to vote upon Proposition 19, the “Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010,” thereby rendering a verdict upon legalization of the possession and consumption of marijuana, under certain conditions and restrictions. Proposition 19 may well fail, and the legalization of marijuana may be years or even decades away, but the era of drug legalization is coming. There is nothing — nothing — one can do to prevent that inevitable day from arriving. The reason is simple: the “war on drugs” is at best a stupid and expensive failure, and at worst a piece of dangerous propaganda, used to justify American military actions in Latin America and elsewhere. Every day, more of us enter the coalition of the knowing. The cause of drug legalization is so plainly correct, and so rational, that it appeals across the political spectrum: among its many advocates have been Tommy Chong, Christopher Hitchens (both during and after his Socialist International days), David Frum, and William F. Buckley.
This failed war is, appropriately, the legacy of a failed president, Richard M. Nixon. He did not create the fears and prejudices underpinning the War on Drugs, but he did market them, popularizing in 1971 the phrase itself and consolidating policies whose roots were in Prohibition-era America. We know how well Prohibition worked out (as well as the war in Indochina, and as it happens upon foundations as misguided) and it is now apparent that the same fate has arrived for the narcotics chapter of this useless moral tale. Good riddance, I say, and not one minute too soon.
One day, citizens of the United States of America will look back upon our time and mock the War on Drugs as a specimen of egregious irrationality. They will note the needless costs of police, courts, and incarceration (one-quarter a million every year under the Clinton administration, and today one of the most common causes of drug arrests, accounting for near one-half the total) deployed against the possession and consumption of marijuana. They will try, and fail, to understand the fears of our generation. The United States spends tens of billions of dollars a year, ineffectively, to restrict something it could be taxing. Crime thrives, lawlessness prevails, and the public is endangered by territorial warfare, all thanks to existing drug laws. Guided by enlightened policies, private enterprise would produce safe, high-quality products, controlled by the state and contributing to the public purse. Resources would be redirected from failed efforts at punishment to productive economic activity and, one should acknowledge in the case of “harder” drugs, to the necessary work of addiction treatment. Legalization could well mean in some cases increased consumption, but again within a context of productive public economic activity and the regime of controlled substances. In other words, the criminals would be cut off at the knees, as they well deserve to be.
What is the compelling argument against legalization of marijuana? There is none. There is only an irrational fear of sudden, widespread mental debilitation and addiction in favour of the status quo. Opponents of Proposition 19 invite you to imagine a nightmare world of November 3, wherein your surgeon, your taxi driver, and your pilot have surrendered themselves to the Seduction. A mere anarchy, in which the moral compass and the mental faculty are no more, and in which it is pointless to speak of personal responsibility. All that stands between the order of November 2 and the chaos of November 3, in this paranoid scheme, is the law. The law which costs us so much, prevents nothing, punishes everything, and guarantees that crime will flourish, to our collective detriment.