Two Cheers for Green Wednesday

Two cheers for today’s Green Wednesday in Colorado – not an environmental holiday but the day that a free highly-regulated market for marijuana comes into being.  Here is the New York Times on the historic day:

While smoking pot has been legal in Colorado for the past year, so-called Green Wednesday represents another historic milestone for the decades-old legalization movement: the unveiling of the nation’s first legal pot industry.

“It could be crazy. Or it could be crickets out there. Who knows? No one’s ever done this before,” said Robin Hackett, manager of BotanaCare in Northglenn, a suburb of Denver, who planned to have a DJ to greet shoppers.

Preparation for the retail market started more than a year ago, soon after Colorado voters in 2012 approved the legal pot industry. Washington state has its own version, which is scheduled to open in mid-2014.

Pot advocates, who had long pushed legalization as an alternative to the lengthy and costly global drug war, had argued it would generate revenue for state coffers and save money in locking up drug offenders.

Still, setting up regulations, taxation and oversight for a drug that’s never been regulated before took some time.

Colorado set up an elaborate plant-tracking system to try to keep the drug away from the black market, and regulators set up packaging, labeling and testing requirements, along with potency limits for edible pot.

The U.S. Justice Department outlined an eight-point slate of priorities for pot regulation, requiring states to keep the drug away from minors, criminal cartels, federal property and other states in order to avoid a federal crackdown. Pot is still illegal under federal law.

I give this occurrence two cheers for a number of reasons, all unconnected with the product itself given that I generally disapprove (only morally, not politically) of anything beyond very moderate use of a small class of recreational (marijuana* and alcohol, for example) and performance enhancing (caffeine, for example) drugs .

First – and quite importantly, this is another dagger in the Federal government’s drug war.  I think there is no need at a classical liberal blog to recount all of the ways in which that effort has harmed individual liberty for everyone.  If you need more convincing of this, see Radley Balko’s excellent new book Rise of the Warrior Cop.  Colorado’s (and Washington and likely soon lots of others) effort will make it a lot harder for the Federal government to sustain a big part of its fight.  No, the Feds and the whole drug war complex (and the rent-seekers within it) will not go down easily.  Indeed, the fight for real drug legalization is only in the 2nd or 3 inning.

Second, this case shows that federalism is still alive (though not robust!) and a real weapon to be wielded against centralization and the creeping (sprinting?) power of the federal government.  Since it is so hard to get positive change in Washington for anything that doesn’t increase state power and a Constitutional Convention isn’t happening anytime soon (and I’m not sure even that would be a good thing given how it would go down and the precedent it could set), states are one place where one can fight and win under the right circumstances.  It isn’t a panacea for all of the problems we face – especially given that states present the danger of what Clint Bolick once called “Grassroots Tyranny.”  But states offer a countervailing power to the Federal government and liberty often thrives in the cracks and crevices that are created from different institutions slamming into each other on a regular basis.  Sometimes one of these is even a real bulwark against the encroachment by the other (and it can go both ways as we saw during the Civil Rights Era when the security of the individual liberty of African-Americans required the Feds to confront certain states).

Only two cheers, though, since the non-political side of this (the actual ability of more people to buy pot and get high) isn’t necessarily in the direction I would have people freely go.  I have a hard time thinking that regular or high usage of pot is consistent with individual flourishing.  But I also have a hard time getting too upset about casual/irregular mind-altering substance use, else I’d be a hypocrite for consuming alcohol on a limited and irregular basis.  Here is what I wrote in 2012 on the subject:

While I don’t think marijuana use is the best thing one could do with one’s freedom, I am glad to see two states legalize it for recreational purposes.  People should be free to engage in non-virtuous acts that don’t violate the equal rights of others (and the immorality of moderate use of marijuana is debatable at best).  More importantly, I am excited about the possibility of a political clash between states and the federal government on this issue.  And in this case, the tide of history is on the side of these states and individual freedom.  The (soft) drug war has no legs even though there are a lot of battles ahead.  Federalism might not either – but at least this gives some hope to those of us who would like to see it resuscitated.

Lastly, note that conservative Republicans aren’t the only possibly threats to legalization (especially given what we’ve seen in the War on Smoking Tobacco).  From the Times:

This movement in public policy basically conflicts with the essence of bringing greater mental health and public health,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization.

* I’ve never used marijuana, legally or otherwise.

UPDATE: I just remembered my other reason for only two cheers.  I hate to see something that people should be fully free to do be taxed and regulated so heavily.  I’d prefer to see an absolutely free market in the marijuana trade. 

5 thoughts on “Two Cheers for Green Wednesday

  1. While I generally agree with your assessment of this victory for individual liberty, I am more concerned with the State’s approach to the consequences of irresponsible usage. Your Smoking example helps illustrate my point. I would be much more comfortable with these freedoms if the state didn’t then consider it my responsibility to pay for the consequences of your choice to exercise these freedoms. The fact that I am paying, through insurance costs and health related taxation, for your choice to smoke cigarettes gives me pause to support such freedoms. And there is no indication, despite this apparent victory for liberty, that this trend will reverse itself; quite the opposite, in fact!

  2. Only two cheers, though, since the non-political side of this (the actual ability of more people to buy pot and get high)…I have a hard time thinking that regular or high usage of pot is consistent with individual flourishing.

    First, let’s notice that it is only once the threat of imprisonment, black market violence, and other forms of state terror and coercion are out of the way that we can begin to have a civilized discussion. More precisely, a status of adult legality is the prerequisite for a discussion where positions are attained through persuasion and reasoning together, rather than at the point of a gun or the threat of confinement preceded by torture and followed by second-class citizenship.

    I think that David Brooks has a small point. Much of the behavior around pot-smoking is foolish or self-defeating or just base indulgence. The best “argument” I’ve ever seen against marijuana is some of the behavior of my fellow “stoners.” (If you’ve ever read some of the ungrammatical, incoherent, illogical, and paranoid pro-legalization rants festooned on comment boards, you would swear they were planted by the ONDCP. Who knows, maybe some of them were.)

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should challenge ourselves and try to achieve difficult tasks so that we, as individuals, know what we are capable of.

    However, does this mean that one should never enjoy a glass of wine, or a beer, or a chocolate chip cookie?

    After all, surely pure water is healthier. Replacing Toll House with kale will leave you slimmer and less diabetic.

    Why must the choice be between pure abstinence and orgiastic hedonism?

    -Why not a joint before bedtime to cure insomnia without pharmaceuticals?
    -Maybe a single bowl to help you through terrible writers’ block.
    -Arthritis responds well to cannabis in some people.
    -Smoking a blunt is, in my opinion, better than going blind from glaucoma.
    -And don’t even get me started on the small children with Dravet’s Syndrome who can suffer from dozens of seizures per day and are, in some cases, responsive to cannabis when nothing else works.

    But I have digressed.

    As for your contention that no one can flourish if they use cannabis, it is belied by the facts. Recall that the greatest swimmer in the history of the world, Michael Phelps, was dropped by at least one of his sponsors (Kellogs) after he was photographed in flagrant delicto smoking enthusiastically from a bong. (Amazingly, weed is so magical it doesn’t even mess up your lung capacity.)

    The famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan, hose of the PBS series Cosmos, has written movingly about how cannabis helped him. Harvard professor of psychiatry Dr. Lester Grispoon began investigating cannabis with the hypothesis that it was harmful and, through research, came to the conclusion that it was salubrious. (His pre-teen son died of leukemia but had his final months become less torturous due to medical cannabis. Later, Grinspoon himself began to smoke.)

    Among artists and musicians, there are too many cannabis users to even begin to name. Among software developers, there are a few (a minority to be sure) who claim that they are able to better solve difficult engineering problems after a toke. The billionaire insurance magnate Peter Lewis was a consistent pot use from at least the 1980s. The triple-Harvard-degreed activist Ethan Nadelmann (B.A., J.D., Ph.D. Harvard) is a regular smoker. One of America’s leading public intellectuals, Andrew Sullivan, is a ganja aficionado. I could go on. And on.

    It’s not surprising that cannabis use– in moderation–is healthy. Cannabis is bio-mimetic; the cannabis we eat and vaporize and smoke is similar to the endocannabinoids our own body produces and the cannabinoid receptors. We’re built for this stuff. By our Creator. It’ like catnip–for humans.

    I have written too much. Hopefully someone will read this. The bottom line is that marijuana is, basically, a positive good if and only if it is used responsibly and in moderation. Overdoing anything is bad.

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