Few phrasings have encapsulated the need for marijuana legalization better than this: "You can hold people accountable for their actions and not put the blame on what's in their body."
Words which were spoken two weeks ago by retired Superior Court Judge James R. Gray - a conservative judge from conservative Orange County, a former staff judge advocate for the U.S. Navy, and a father of three; a man who does not condone marijuana use, nor use it himself; and who is by all accounts one of California's fiercest advocates for its legalization.
Or, consider the similar sentiment expressed by Colorodoan mother - and loyal Republican - Jessica Corry:
If we believe that smaller government is better government, we must trust people to choose what to put into their bodies. If we support legalized access to alcohol, cigarettes, and 700-calorie cheeseburgers, we should legalize marijuana - a far less harmful substance.
A Denver-based attorney, Ms. Corry was named one of Colorado's most influential women by the Denver Examiner, has worked for Senators Fred Thompson and Olympia Snowe - and is also the co-founder of "Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana Prohibition".
Further examples of conservative figures who unambiguously support California's upcoming marijuana legalization initiative are not difficult to come across (Ron Paul, Bob Barr, and Tom Tancredo come to mind). In truth, there is an argument to be made that they are much more vocal in their support than many of their liberal counterparts have been (one thinks immediately of Senator Barbara Boxer, who has come out against the proposition, and is not coincidentally in the middle of the closest re-election battle of her career).
These figures on the right are not mentioned here anecdotally. No coalition could more forcefully push the "Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010" across the finish line than one which includes law enforcement, mothers, and civil libertarians of all stripes. These three groups represent the three central arguments for legalization, respectively: the fiscal, practical, and Constitutional. And what a coalition such as this would simultaneously accomplish (deeply symbolically at that) is the formation of the first truly bipartisan movement of the decade.
As the perennial proverb goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Consider briefly the arguments themselves. A substantial swatch of California law enforcement feel, like Judge Gray, that the War on Drugs has been an unequivocal failure. Since the 1970's, we have spent as a nation close to five hundred billion dollars on this crusade, and here are the results: one-third of U.S. prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, and 47% of them are marijuana-related. And after a 40-year long "war", 42% of living Americans have smoked marijuana at least once (of those willing to admit). Prohibition has deterred no one.
This means a gross diversion of law enforcement's attention, and vastly bloated spending. As Judge Gray put it in a 2001 California Lawyer article, "The diversion of billions of dollars from the prosecution of violent street crime and fraud to the prosecution of hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug sellers and millions of drug users (is) a distinct problem of drug prohibition." Not that the illegal drug trade hasn't produced enough violence on it's own: "When drug dealers shoot police officers, witnesses, innocent bystanders, or even each other, that is a drug prohibition problem rather than a drug problem. Today, when the distributors of Coors and Budweiser have a problem with each other, they take it to court, but the distributors of illicit substances take their problems to the streets."
Just as they did during the 1996 medical marijuana debate in California, opponents will scream in response the favorite mantra of the religious right: the children, the children, the children. It is not fantasy to predict that the talking points will be recycled: "If you legalize it, the floodgates will open, and teens everywhere will become potheads."
The response to this is a slightly counterintuitive feature of the California initiative that needs to be central to the pro-legalization message, and it needs to come from voices like Judge Gray: passage would actually decrease access to marijuana for minors.
How do we know this? Essentially, the proposal treats marijuana regulation identically to alcohol. You'll have to be 21 to buy it or use it, and you can't smoke it in public or on school grounds. Now, we could additionally debate whether alluring dangers always have and always will exist amongst teenagers; we could toss around the basic psychological precept that if you forbid people things they like, or that they think they might like, you only make them want that thing more (whereas by legalizing it, you strip it of its exotic appeal). But fortunately we have facts, so we don't need to travel the long route: From 1996-2006, the first ten years of legalized medical marijuana in California, pot use among teens did, in fact, decrease. For 11th graders, it went down 30%; and for 7th and 9th graders, it went down 45%
This is part of the larger systemic argument being made by Gray, and organizations like LEAP, a collection of 30,000 police, prosecutors, judges, FBI/DEA agents and others who are actively against drug prohibition. "Prohibition never works as well as regulation and control," Gray said, at a Siskiyou County forum two weeks ago. "You don't see students on high school campuses selling Jim Beam bourbon or Marlboro cigarettes, do you? But they sell marijuana all the time." And here's the clincher: "This is far too dangerous to leave to the drug dealers." Dealers who, it is worth reminding, do not check for ID.
Enter Jessica Corry. There will always be parents who cling to the notion that they can protect their children from ever being offered drugs, or alcohol, or cigarettes, and then there are those who live in reality. "In a perfect world, my kids would never experiment with marijuana or alcohol," Ms. Corry wrote in a HuffPost piece, "but as a realist, I also fear the pain alcohol could cause in their later lives far more than I fear any detrimental consequences of marijuana use."
At its core, are these not very conservative values we are discussing here? "We resent government bureaucrats insisting on parenting our children," Corry writes. Is this not rhetoric more befitting a Tea Party rally than a pro-marijuana article? This rings true with the fiscal component as well. What governmental sector, save the Defense Department, incurs more wasteful spending than non-violent drug enforcement? Is this prohibition really worth the billions of dollars we're spending each year, when it is proving again and again to be wholly ineffective? "Drug addiction is a medical problem," said Ron Paul at a 2007 presidential debate . "It's not a problem of the law." Precisely the conservative philosophy - let the free market take over the drug trade. Regulate the hell out of it, yes, but leave it privatized; the practice conservatives glorify in every other sector of the economy.
Few issues inspire broad consensus, and the potential partnership between small-government Tea Partiers and leftist civil libertarians should indicate that, in sentiment and in policy, this is intrinsically a matter of liberty - and a non-trivial one at that. The freedom to enjoy a harmless high in privacy, even if the idea is offensive to one's neighbor, is as central a component to American liberty as one's freedom to carry a Bible; or, say, a gun.
Thus, every time a fiscal conservative or Tea Partier stands up and rails against big government and wasteful spending, the left should stand shoulder-to-shoulder and proclaim, "You betcha. Get your government hands off my marijuana."