The Presidency Goes to Pot
Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JOHN P. WALTERS
This is an absurd but politically powerful argument with baby boomers, since the subtext is that people who have smoked pot are hypocrites if they disagree. Legalization is an act of justice, and those who oppose it want to perpetuate injustice. For a political official especially (although Obama’s argument includes all of us), if you got away with marijuana use and oppose legalization, you are supporting the arbitrary victimization of those who are just like you. Even if you did not use drugs, you are unjust to support laws that punish a few when many offend. This seems to be necessarily linked to Obama’s initial claim that marijuana (and maybe other illegal drugs) is not really harmful. If illegal drugs are harmful, it would seem that not being able to stop or deter that harm in even a majority of the cases would still make it moral to protect and bring justice where possible. Most laws and principles of morality exist in this condition because human justice, even at its best, is far from perfect.
On the other hand, Obama clearly suggests that the racial and socioeconomic disparity in enforcement discredits drug laws and those who defend them. He has not faced the fact that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities in crime and punishment, but they are not caused by drug laws, and they will almost certainly get worse as drug use expands. The pervasive, willful denial of all this is a powerful driver of the moral argument for legalization.
An even stronger driver of legalization may be the simple inability of former users to admit to themselves and to others that what they did was wrong and dangerous, even if they were lucky to avoid serious harm. It is just not cool to say such things, and certainly from the point of view of the many users who were not harmed, marijuana seems harmless. To speak of the harms as a public figure is to criticize many who are just like you and who feel the risks are really not so great. This is a tricky business of denial, however. Virtually everyone has a loved one who has been a victim of substance abuse. We have all watched celebrities and public figures destroy themselves and pass in and out of treatment. We also know of or live in parts of our country that have been devastated by drugs and crime.
Antidrug liberalism has been based on protecting the vulnerable from victimization, but it has lost its way in substituting demographics for moral principle and character. Antidrug conservatism also sought to protect the vulnerable and to preserve individual freedom from addiction and self-destruction. Today some conservatives confuse the institutions and laws needed to preserve freedom with the threats to freedom—they equate willfulness with freedom.
American democracy has always needed leaders who know the truth and have the courage and skill to bring the truth to our public deliberations. That need is greater today than it has been in some time.
John P. Walters, director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush, is chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute.
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