Pubdate: Wed, 02 Jan 2013
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2013 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Author: Cathy Young
Note: This column appeard opposite Richard Roper's Legalization
movement is gambling with our children's futures column under the 
heading Which Way on Marijuana?


Among the results of last month's elections was a startling cultural
development: two states, Colorado and Washington, became the first to
legalize the sale of marijuana for any purpose to adults over 21. This
coincides with national polls that show increasing support for
marijuana legalization. Yet on this issue, conservatives and liberals
alike have balked at defending individual rights and states' rights.

Since 1996, when California allowed the medicinal use of marijuana, 17
more states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. A
Washington Post-ABC News poll three years ago found overwhelming
support for legalizing medical marijuana use: 81 percent were in
favor. More recent CBS News and Quinnipiac polls have shown Americans
almost evenly split on legalizing recreational sale of marijuana to
adults, with supporters ahead by 3 to 4 percentage points. In 1969,
only 16 percent favored legalization.

While the use of cannabis has been illegal since the 1930s (when the
name "marijuana" was popularized by opponents to capitalize on
anti-Mexican stereotypes), the ban -- like alcohol prohibition before
it -- can be seen as the ultimate in intrusive government. If the
state's going to tell us there are substances we're not allowed to
ingest or inhale, there had better be a very compelling reason to
justify such intrusion.

Few would join libertarian purists in advocating the legalization of
hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin; but more and more Americans
agree that marijuana is no more harmful than other legal products such
as alcohol and tobacco. Among those under 30, as many as 70 percent
endorse full legalization of marijuana.

Yet even the use of marijuana for medical reasons -- such as nausea
and pain control, supported by eloquent testimony from patients -- has
run into dogged opposition from the federal government. While the
Obama administration initially moved to end the Bush administration's
raids on medical marijuana distributors in states where such
dispensaries were legal (though they run afoul of federal laws), it
has reversed course toward more aggressive enforcement.

On the state level, too, even limited legalization continues to
encounter strong opposition -- in part because it would conflict with
federal law. In New York, the Democrat-controlled State Assembly has
voted three times -- most recently in June -- to legalize medical
marijuana; the Republican-dominated Senate has blocked the bill. Gov.
Andrew M. Cuomo has straddled the fence, backing the decriminalization
of possession in small amounts but also saying that medical
marijuana's risks outweigh the benefits.

You would think that both conservatives and liberals would have good
reasons to support legalization. Conservatives have long championed
small government and advocated leaving most policy issues to the
states; even if one believes that governments have a legitimate
interest in restricting marijuana sale and consumption, there is no
reason to regulate it on a national level. Liberals have long
championed the right of adult men and women to make their own
lifestyle choices regardless of social disapproval, as long as their
actions cause no direct harm to others.

The status quo is defended by powerful groups from evangelical
Christians to law enforcement officials. Yet legislating an
increasingly unpopular morality undercuts respect for both morality
and law -- and enforcing marijuana prohibition diverts resources that
could be used to fight real crime.

In our polarized environment, efforts by either political party to
move toward a more rational marijuana policy would likely be painted
as pro-drug by the other side. So far, only mavericks -- such as
retiring Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former New Mexico Gov. Gary
Johnson -- have been willing to take a pro-liberty stance on this
issue. For more mainstream politicians to follow in their footsteps
would be risky, but it would also show true leadership.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the
website RealClearPolitics. 
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