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Pot Crusaders or Freedom Crusaders?

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The states of New Hampshire and Illinois recently legalized marijuana for medical use.

New Hampshire’s governor, Maggie Hassan, signed House Bill 573 into law on July 23. The bill allows patients to purchase up to two ounces of marijuana from four regional dispensaries. To qualify for the program, a person must have “both a debilitating disease such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or hepatitis C, and conditions such as significant weight loss, severe pain or wasting syndrome.” The bill requires qualifying patients to have had the same physician for more than three months. The law took effect upon passage.

Illinois’s governor, Pat Quinn, signed House Bill 1 into law on August 1. The bill sets up a four-year pilot program for state-regulated dispensaries and 22 cultivation centers. Qualifying patients with “serious illnesses or diseases” such as cancer, muscular dystrophy, or lupus will be allowed to obtain 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana every two weeks. Patients must have “established relationships with a doctor.” The new law takes effect on January 1, 2014.

Medical marijuana is now legal — albeit with very heavy regulation — in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The other 18 states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. There are efforts under way in Arkansas, Florida, and Ohio to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot in 2014.

Moreover, some states have decriminalized the possession of certain amounts of marijuana, most recently Rhode Island. And the states of Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Voters in Portland, Maine, the state’s largest city, will vote this November to legalize possessing up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

But even if all 50 states legalized medical marijuana, that would not change federal law.

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. As a Schedule I drug, marijuana supposedly meets the following criteria:

A. The drug has a high potential for abuse.

B. The drug has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States

C. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.

Thus, according to the federal government, using marijuana is no different than using heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy). And using marijuana is worse than using morphine, methamphetamine, or cocaine, which are only classified as Schedule II drugs.

After a number of states had legalized marijuana for medical use, the Justice Department in 2009 issued a memorandum concerning “Investigations and Prosecutions in States Authorizing the Medical Use of Marijuana,” which stated,

The Department of Justice is committed to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in all States. Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug, and the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime and provides a significant source of revenue to large-scale criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels.

But just recently, and because the states of Colorado and Washington legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the Justice Department issued another memorandum concerning “Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement.” The press release announcing the memorandum, which refers to it as an “update to marijuana enforcement policy,” says in part,

For states such as Colorado and Washington that have enacted laws to authorize the production, distribution and possession of marijuana, the Department expects these states to establish strict regulatory schemes that protect the eight federal interests identified in the Department’s guidance. These schemes must be tough in practice, not just on paper, and include strong, state-based enforcement efforts, backed by adequate funding. Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the Department has informed the governors of both states that it is deferring its right to challenge their legalization laws at this time. But if any of the stated harms do materialize — either despite a strict regulatory scheme or because of the lack of one — federal prosecutors will act aggressively to bring individual prosecutions focused on federal enforcement priorities and the Department may challenge the regulatory scheme themselves in these states.

This signals a significant change in the enforcement of federal marijuana laws even though the laws themselves remain the same and even though the manufacture, distribution, or possession of marijuana is still a federal crime.

In an Associated Press story about the Justice Department’s new memorandum that appeared in a wide variety of news outlets — including conservative ones — the authors, Gene Johnson and Pete Yost, begin with these two loaded paragraphs:

For generations, pot crusaders have called for an end to the nation’s prohibition of marijuana, citing everything from what they say are the government’s exaggerated claims about its dangers to the racial disparities in who gets busted for drug possession.

Now, they will get their chance in Colorado and Washington state to show that legalizing pot is better, less costly and more humane than the last 75 years of prohibition — all with the federal government’s blessing.

Are those of us who believe there should be no laws regarding the buying, selling, possessing, using, growing, or processing of marijuana pot crusaders or freedom crusaders?

The libertarian case against marijuana prohibition is a simple and consistent one: Because it is not the business of government to be concerned with the medical, consumption, or recreational habits of Americans, there should be no laws whatsoever prohibiting or regulating marijuana or any other drug for any reason.

It is true that libertarians point out “the government’s exaggerated claims” about the dangers of marijuana and “the racial disparities in who gets busted for drug possession.” And it is true that libertarians believe that “legalizing pot is better, less costly and more humane than the last 75 years of prohibition.” But to focus just on those things, as the authors do, is to miss the point. It is marijuana freedom for freedom’s sake that we “pot crusaders” are after. Libertarian opponents of marijuana prohibition don’t argue for pot legalization because they want to get high, end the violence associated with the drug war, treat debilitating medical conditions, correct racial disparities, or revamp marijuana’s falsely tarnished image — even if they want to do all these things. The issue is drug freedom. We are freedom crusaders, not pot crusaders.

The other misleading statement by Johnson and Yost concerns the “federal government’s blessing.” That the federal government is not enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use has nothing to do with the federal government’s blessing. As libertarians have also pointed out for years about the Constitution, with surprisingly little support from conservatives who claim to revere it, because the Constitution nowhere grants any authority to the federal government to have anything to do with marijuana or any other drug, the federal government’s attitude should be one of total and complete neutrality. In our federal system of government, any laws concerning the prohibition or regulation of drugs are entirely up to the states.

A writer for Mademan.com recently chronicled the 15 dumbest laws in America. Included were dumb laws like North Dakota’s law that beer and pretzels cannot be served at the same time in any bar or restaurant, and the Nebraska law that says parents can be arrested if their offspring is unable to hold back a burp during a church service. We can only hope that in the not-too-distant future the day comes when laws regarding marijuana prohibition are not only unenforced, but also looked upon and laughed at for the dumb laws that they are.

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