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Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Libertarian Case Against Legalized Pot

One of the more successful campaigns in the United States in the past couple of decades has been the one to legalize marijuana. As of today, it has reached ten states, and more are likely to come. The question of legalization has been a staple of many libertarian outfits, including the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). Their blog Learn Liberty advocates legalization and blurs the line between regular marijuana and its medical derivative. The IHS sponsor events that advocate legalization.

Their executive director Chad Thevenot has put his background in the Marijuana Policy Project to good use. 

Another libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, also gives voice to pot legalization. Their director of economic studies, Jeffrey Miron, has a long history of promoting legalization because it will increase tax revenue and - by consequence - allow for more government spending. 

It is not entirely clear what philosophical aspect of legalization that Miron and Cato are trying to promote - that is, if one disregards the fact that Miron's only coherent argument for legalization actually is an argument for growing government. When it comes to Thevenot and the IHS, the argument is more clearly one of individual freedom: every person should have the right to make his own decisions on what he wants to do with his life. 

As a libertarian, I object to drug legalization. Before I explain how, let us take a look at a couple of Jeffrey Miron's arguments, as they are good representations of what libertarians generally say in defense of legalization. 

Miron's campaign to legalize pot so government can grow predates his affiliation with the Cato Institute, but since he came onboard with them he has made the case that
state marijuana legalizations have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes. ... we find little support for the stronger claims made by either opponents or advocates of legalization. The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.
Furthermore, opines Miron,
Data from the Drug Policy Alliance reveal that 89 percent of arrested individuals are charged with possessing small amounts (usually no more than a few grams) of the substance. Make no mistake: The longer our federal policies continue to criminalize marijuana, the longer our nation continues to suffer from excessive, costly and disproportionate federal prosecution against petty marijuana possession.
The first argument, namely that there has been no increase in the use of marijuana after legalization, is a moot point. The number of people who smoke occasionally may not have increased that much, but the intensity of consumption among existing users has gone up drastically. In a long article in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal the weekend of January 5-6, New York Times reporter Alex Berenson reports data he has collected for his new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence. Berenson acknowledges the same data that Miron refers to, but he also adds an aspect of those numbers that Miron cleverly omits:
But the number of Americans who use cannabis heavily is soaring. In 2006, about 3 million Americans reported using the drug at least 300 times a year, the standard for daily use. By 2017, that number had increased to 8 million - approaching the 12 million Americans who drank every day. Put another way, only one in 15 drinkers consumed alcohol daily; about one in five marijuana users used cannabis that often. 
Berenson also notes that the toxicity of marijuana cigarettes has increased drastically:
In the 1970s, most marijuana contained less than 2% THC. Today, marijuana routinely contains 20-25% THC, thanks to sophisticated farming and cloning techniques and to the demand of users to get a stronger high more quickly. In states where cannabis is legal, many users prefer extracts that are nearly pure THC.
In other words, contrary to Miron's argument those who smoke pot, smoke more and in higher concentration. 

Miron's second argument, about the sentences that pot users get, is a good one. It is unreasonable that people get harsher sentences for possession of marijuana than for violent crimes. However, that is not why legalization advocates use this argument - they, Miron included, make this point to suggest that pot smokers are no more violent, no more dangerous to society than non-users. 

Again, Berenson makes a compelling counter-argument:
Research from Finland and Denmark, two countries that track mental illness more accurately [than the United States], shows a significant increase in psychosis since 2000, following an increase in cannabis use. And last September, a large survey found a rise in serious mental illness in the U.S. too. In 2017, 7.5% of young adults met the criteria for serious mental illness, double the rate in 2008.
Denmark, it might be worth noting, is home to one of Europe's oldest, most established and prolific legal-pot zone. Known as Christiania, it was created by hippies and other political radicals in the early 1970s. Sitting just south of downtown Copenhagen it was long a no-enforcement zone for the police. However, the pot trade attracted violent criminals who were after the big money being made from the trade. The Hells Angels fought two biker wars for control over the territory, first with the local Bullshits, then with the Bandidos. 

Ironically, the hippies who lived in Christiania became increasingly uncomfortable with the Hells Angels. Instead of taking the consequences of their much-desired legal pot zone, they pleaded with the police to clean up the area. At first reluctant, the police decided to move in when the city of Copenhagen saw it as an opportunity to turn Christiania dwellers into legal citizens in more aspects than one - tax revenue, for example. 

Long story short, the romanticized legal-pot years of Denmark's Christiania ended when its residents realized that the absence of law and order actually had a negative effect on their own lives. Their experience is not explicitly an argument against legalization, but it is an argument against the naive attitude to the state as an institution, that is so widespread among libertarians. 

This naive attitude splits into two. The first part has to do with the legalization itself; the second about the need for a minimal state, but no smaller state than that. Leaving the second part for a later essay, the first part is highly relevant to the issue of legalization here in America. More specifically, it has to do with the way the drug affects people's ability to function as responsible citizens in a free society. Berenson again:
in individual cases, marijuana can cause psychosis, and psychosis is a high risk factor for violence. What's more, much of that violence occurs when psychotic people are using drugs. ... when [people with schizophrenia] use drugs, their risk of violence skyrockets. The drug they are most likely to use is cannabis. The most obvious way that cannabis fuels violence in psychotic people is through its tendency to cause paranoia. Even marijuana advocates acknowledge that the drug can cause paranoia; the risk is so obvious that users joke about it, and dispensaries advertise certain strains as less likely to do so. But for people with psychotic disorders, paranoia can fuel extreme violence. 
However, he reports, it is not just people with psychosis who are in danger:
A 2012 paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, examining a federal survey of more than 9,000 adolescents, found that marijuana use was associated with a doubling of domestic violence in the U.S. A 2017 paper in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, examining drivers of violence among 6,000 British and Chinese men, found that drug use was linked to a fivefold increase in violence, and the drug used was nearly always cannabis.
Even more troubling are the violent-crime numbers that Berenson presents:
The first four states to legalize marijuana for recreational use were Colorado and Washington in 2014 and Alaska and Oregon in 2015. Combined, those four states had about 450 murders and 30,300 aggravated assaults in 2013. In 2017, they had almost 620 murders and 38,000 aggravated assaults - an increase far greater than the national average. 
He also cites 150-year-old British data on the relationship between mental illness and cannabis use.

Given that Berenson's book presents the proper sources reported for his facts, his findings are compelling. They point to a problem with legalization that can jeopardize the very freedom that would let people smoke pot: if people taking cannabis lose their ability to uphold a free, peaceful society, then the conclusion must be that their individual actions in taking that drug are a threat to the liberty of others. 

To continue to exist, a free society relies not on the state, but - as I have discussed before - on the exercise of responsible citizenship by all adults. We would not accept that a business owner abused the absence of antitrust laws to bully competitors out of the market, nor would we accept that men harass women sexually simply because there is no law against it. We would expect everyone to behave like adults. 

By the same token, we should expect everyone to refrain from taking drugs that diminish or eliminate their ability to exercise responsible citizenship. The problem with drugs that cause psychoses is that the person taking the drug may believe that he is not at all behaving recklessly. While the consequences of his behavior are illegal - at least insofar as they consist of criminal acts - his psychotic behavior invalidates him as a defender and upholder of liberty. To defend liberty, one has to be able to stand up for its defense; to uphold liberty, one has to act in its interest on a daily basis. 

In both cases, selflessness is the key to each individual's contribution to the continued existence of a free society. Therefore, if a drug makes a person psychotic and by definition egoistic; as well as unable to realize that he is egoistic; then the drug poses a threat to the liberty of all citizens.

This is not a simple argument to make. There are several pitfalls, of course, the most obvious of them being the question "where do we draw the line?" That is for further discussion to determine; for now, the very fact that there appears to be a clear connection between violent, destructive behavior and the use of cannabis is reason enough to, at the very least, reject further legalization.

It deserves to be pointed out, again, that an argument against legalization is not an argument against criminal justice reform. It is not even an argument for rolling back legalization in states where it has already happened. It is, however, an argument for more research on the connection between cannabis and destructive behavior - and an argument for a deeper philosophical examination of the legalization argument itself.

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