Yes We Cannabis

Is New England’s most trailblazing state about to get a little blazed itself?

Thanks to a forthcoming public referendum, the question of whether to fully legalize marijuana in Massachusetts will be among the loudest political battles in the Bay State throughout this summer and fall.  In Monday’s Boston Globe, a team of major political leaders fired the opening shot, and I would advise my fellow pot proponents to take their case with the care and seriousness it deserves.

In a joint op-ed (ahem), Mass. governor Charlie Baker, Boston mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey strongly argued against the proposition, known as the “Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act,” writing that fully legalizing cannabis would be a reckless and expensive act of public policy and should be rejected out of hand.

The essence of the piece, simply titled, “Do not legalize marijuana in Massachusetts,” is that should Mass. residents vote themselves permission to grow, buy, sell and smoke marijuana, the commonwealth would incur gargantuan costs—direct and indirect—that would probably not be balanced out by whatever new revenue this exciting new product might generate.

Those costs, the authors argue, cannot simply be written off as negligible, immaterial or alarmist.  If marijuana were made legal, that means a lot more people would use it, which in turn means a lot more people would abuse it, which further means that such institutions as schools, hospitals and police departments would be forced to deal with the consequences, and God knows if they’ll be ready.

To be clear:  When we talk about such extreme misuse of a drug like pot, we’re mostly talking about children and teenagers.  It is a matter of historical record—not least in my own experience—that high schoolers and college students are much more prone than grown-ups to do stupid, reckless, destructive things to and with their own selves—either in the name of rebellion, curiosity or sheer idleness—and that not all of those activities magically wear off before you graduate and move on to the so-called real world.

It is equally true—according to a towering pile of research—that a person is much more likely to get hooked on some drug or other—and, with it, risk a lifetime of hardship and misery—if he or she first experiences it as an adolescent.  We know beyond doubt, for instance, that a person who begins smoking cigarettes at age 15 is in serious danger of dependency, while someone who manages to avoid it through, say, age 21 is quite likely never to start smoking in the first place.  That’s just how our brains work and we can’t pretend otherwise.

As it happens, the proposed law in Massachusetts would only legalize marijuana for those 21 years and older—as well as capping, at one ounce, the amount an individual can carry out in the open—which in theory should render this whole issue moot.

Or it would, except that the world doesn’t run according to theory.  Regrettably, to say that a legal age restriction on pot would prevent teens from getting high is just as laughable as saying the legal drinking age has prevented 19-year-olds from shooting tequila and playing beer pong.  The latter sure didn’t stop me from indulging in youthful debauchery on a regular basis, and I wasn’t exactly a black marketeer.

And so, on this, the skeptics are right:  If marijuana is legal and widely available to the public, it will find its way into the wrong hands without a whole lot of trouble.  More kids will smoke it and some of them, while under the influence, will commit various offenses against the law, common sense and their own physical well-being—and Mass. taxpayers will be on the hook for a great deal of the ensuing damage.  That’s to say nothing of the possible long-term effects of regular marijuana use, which are certainly alarming but by no means settled science.

Which brings us to what is, for us libertarians, the most essential question of all:  Under what circumstances should we, as a people, prohibit an enjoyable recreational activity on the grounds that some of us will enjoy it just a little bit too much?

Amidst all the gloom and doom about the downside of pot legalization, we have nearly lost sight of a rather important fact:  Of all the people who have ever ingested the cannabis plant, the overwhelming majority have derived nothing but pleasure and merriment from the experience, with little to no aftereffects—except, perhaps, the distinction of having lived a slightly more interesting and fulfilling life.

Normal, responsible people smoke marijuana because they enjoy how it makes them feel.  In the right setting with the right people, pot smoking is an utterly benign and blissful pastime—a way to relax and commiserate and act all goofy and weird, and before you know it, the high wears off and you can safely return to the obligations of adulthood.

Consumed in moderation, marijuana is—or should be—a vice like any other:  Not healthy, per se, but part of a satisfying, well-balanced life for anyone who treats it properly.

Now then:  Is everyone in America as responsible with their drug use as you and I?  Nope.  Nopity nope nope.  But I wonder:  Should we really be designing our drug laws based on the assumption that there are no responsible people at all?

We sure don’t feel that way about guns.  Or booze.  Or gambling.  Or chocolate.  Commodities like those are as widely and freely available today as they’ve ever been, despite the spectacular social and economic costs that result from certain folks behaving stupidly.

And why is that, ladies and gentlemen?  It’s because we all instinctively understand, as Congressman Barney Frank so tartly put it, “If we were to outlaw for adults everything that college students abuse, we’d all just sit at home and do nothing.”

So what, may I ask, makes marijuana so goddamn special?  Why is a substance that is demonstrably less destructive than, say, alcohol, treated as seriously as a substance like heroin—a scourge that, as Baker, Walsh and Healey note, really does pose a clear and present danger to the good people of Massachusetts?

The short answer—depressing, but simple—is that because pot has been outlawed for so long, we can’t know for sure exactly how it would be regulated, especially with regards to so-called edibles, which Baker et al. cite as a big fat question mark and a particular danger to children.  (It’s not difficult to see why.)

But why—in Massachusetts of all places—should fear of the unknown prevent us from doing something that just might be worthwhile?

Not to brag, but on matters of large-scale public policy, my home state has a long and storied history of doing just about everything exactly right.  In a nation of faintheartedness, Massachusetts has a way of storming into the future with one innovation after another—be they social, medical, technological or political—inducing other states to sheepishly follow our lead.

Massachusetts started the Revolution.  We welcomed gay marriage before it was cool.  We introduced universal healthcare with a model that inspired the Affordable Care Act.  Our education system is the envy of the world.  And by way, in 2006 we decriminalized marijuana and six years later made it available for medicinal use.

Are we really suggesting that, having accomplished all of that, it is somehow beyond our ability to create a chocolate bar wrapper that says, “This product is not intended for children”?  What an odd concession that would be.

Yes, we need to be smart about this.  Of course we do.  As with any new “social experiment,” we need to anticipate unintended consequences and design ways to prevent or minimize them.  As written, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act goes a certain distance; if passed, it will fall to the state legislature to fill in any remaining holes.

Why go to all the trouble, you ask?  Simply:  To enable free people in a free country to make free choices about how to live their lives.

As Americans, we have somehow managed to balance the safety of children with the liberty of adults many times in the past.  Why on Earth couldn’t we do it again?

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