Monday, November 12, 2012

The Case for Legalizing Marijuana

(Authors note: this essay will be published tomorrow in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter. Since it was written for publication, I had to omit many statistics and important sources which quantified the impact of the arguments I cite here. These stats will follow in a separate post.)

Earlier this week, Colorado and Washington made international headlines by becoming the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. These measures contradict existing drug policy at the federal level, and many pundits anticipate a legal showdown that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. But the short-term outcome of these battles will do little to change the long-term necessity of ending the war on drugs. Legalizing marijuana across all 50 states is long overdue, and whenever it inevitably comes to pass it will make our nation richer, safer, and freer.

In times of recession and massive debt, the fiscal savings and economic benefits of legalization cannot be overlooked. State and federal governments spend tens of billions of dollars every year to find, arrest, prosecute and imprison non-violent drug offenders. Legalizing marijuana would decrease these costs while simultaneously increasing tax revenues (both from taxing the sale of marijuana itself and from the income taxes levied on the new industry). The cannabis industry also has tremendous growth potential due to the plants’ many industrial uses. A distinct variety of cannabis called hemp can be used to make dozens of everyday products in a cheap, efficient, and environmentally friendly way. Cannabis itself can be fermented to produce energy, and is already a useful biofuel with the potential to reduce our dependence on oil. Finally, by removing artificial restrictions on supply and enabling competition, legalizing marijuana would bring the price of pot closer in line with the cost of production, increasing economic efficiency in general.

Legalizing marijuana would also make us safer, for at least three reasons. Firstly, it would defund organized crime. Prohibition gives a monopoly to those willing to break the law by shielding them from competition and taxation. This inflates the price of pot and sends lucrative profits to gangs and cartels – including the same Mexican drug cartels that have killed an estimated 60,000 people in drug related violence since 2006. The profits from this underground empire are used to fund activities far more sinister than hitting the bong; these cartels are known to dabble in kidnapping, extortion, weapons smuggling, child sex slavery, and hired assassination. Legalizing marijuana would divert money away from these thugs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product.

Secondly, legalization would make the marijuana trade itself safer by turning a violent black market into a transparent and regulated one. Consumers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and bloody turf wars between rival distributors would disappear as the demand for their services dried up. And not only would the process of selling pot be safer, but the pot itself would be safer; the street practice of lacing weed with more addictive drugs or filler substances would be replaced by the quality controls and business accountability of a regulated market.

Thirdly, legalization would decrease crime by rebuilding America’s poorest and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime. When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional. Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves. Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. Firstly, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground marijuana trade as a profitable option. And secondly, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration and increasing the legal employment opportunities of would-be convicts.

Finally, the most compelling benefit of legalization is that it asserts our fundamental human freedom to do as we so choose. For patients with debilitating diseases, that freedom would finally grant them access to the painkilling and nausea reducing medicine they need. For millions of black Americans, that freedom would mean they are no longer discriminated against by an abusive drug war that targets their neighborhoods and ignores their civil rights. And for hundreds of thousands of prospective inmates, that freedom would be realized in the most literal sense imaginable: they would be free from prison. Legalization would reaffirm the individual liberties of all Americans, and remove the threat of arrest or worse for our personal lifestyle decisions. Deciding to smoke a joint is every bit as much of a personal choice as deciding to drink a beer or to eat a greasy hamburger. On such matters, it’s not the governments place to protect us from ourselves. Free people should be allowed to do whatever they please to the extent that it doesn’t harm others, and private marijuana consumption in the comfort of one’s own home simply does not do that.

Marijuana certainly isn’t nearly as harmful or addictive as legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. But as a recent editorial in The Seattle Times put it, the relevant question isn’t whether marijuana is good: “It is whether prohibition is good. It is whether the people who use marijuana shall be subject to arrest, and whether the people who supply them shall be sent to prison. The question is whether the war on marijuana is worth what it costs.” The answer is a clear no. No one knows exactly how the showdown between state and federal law will play out over the coming months. But in any case, prohibition is far too costly, dangerous and oppressive to last much longer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Response to Kurt Schlichter: Why Ron Paul Supporters Won't Vote for Romney

A little over a month ago, some conservative talking head over at Breitbart wrote an editorial challenging Ron Paul supporters to prove they really supported the constitution…by voting for Mitt Romney. You can read the article here.

It wasn’t the premise of this article that pissed me off. As a recent Reason Magazine (which does not endorse political candidates) editorial made clear, there is a logical case for why a principled libertariancould justify voting for Romney. Such an argument can be made well in a respectful, reasoned manner that advances the public discourse on voting strategies.

What sparked my ire in Schlichter’s article was not his opinion, but his tone. His perspective was not that of a friendly conservative trying to woo libertarians off the fence with an enticing sales pitch. Instead, it was a condescending command for us to toe the party line. The author admits that Romney needs our support, but then fails to recognize is that the way to get it is not to treat us like petulant children who need to be whipped out of la-la land. So it is with particular pleasure that I will Mr. Schlichter exactly why he is wrong, line by line.

The title hints at the underlying premise of the article: “supporting the constitution” is equivalent to voting for Mitt Romney. One might ask himself if this is this the same Romney who feels the president can go to war without congressional permission, Article I be damned. Or the same Romney who repeatedly dodged what few constitution-related questions there were in the Republican debates, and thinks federal activities should not be limited to those in the enumerated powers. Let's not pretend Romney is some champion limited government and defender of the originalist constitutional interpretation. It is no secret that on any issue in which the checks on executive power would actually restrict his governing flexibility in practice, Romney gives about as many shits about the constitution as Obama does. The author essentially concedes this point by dropping it; he makes no attempt to pretend that Romney would have balked at any of Obama’s unconstitutional encroachments on liberty due to a heartfelt concern for the document’s long term erosion.

In its place is some classic election doublespeak: the article's subtitle says that “not voting for Romney is a vote for Obama.” Schlichter argues “Making no choice in this election is a choice – it’s a choice for a collectivist who will get two or three Supreme Court picks over a man who picked a guy, Paul Ryan, who understands capitalism and its unbreakable link to human freedom.” Never mind for the moment that Gary Johnson derives support equally from Republicans and Democrats, so his candidacy isn’t harming one party any more than the other; even if Gary Johnson were simply 2012’s version of Ross Perot, there is a big difference between actively supporting and helping Barack Obama and passively refusing to vote for anyone. Deliberately confusing those two decisions is the exact mindset that has burdened this country with a two-party system that fails to represent the views of so many Americans. And as for Paul Ryan's love of capitalism, well, you’re not asking us to vote for Paul Ryan. When the best thing you can cite about your candidate’s record on freedom preservation is that his vice-president “understands” it, you’re not winning over many libertarians.

Next, Schlichter says that the GOP is “the only party with a libertarian element.” Although I would remind him that the libertarian party has quite a sizable libertarian element, this is hardly the case even among the major parties. He claims that Democrats merely “posture as guardians of freedom” on abortion and gay marriage, and omits that most Republicans do the same thing in reverse. When freedom becomes inconvenient on issues like abortion, sexuality, immigration, the drug war, gambling, prostitution, organ sale, privacy rights, defense spending, the TSA, foreign policy, and countless other issues, Republicans “drop it like it’s hot” just as quickly as do Democrats.

Libertarians, the author argues, can “earn the respect of conservatives (though never, ever, of Democrats).” Most of my democratic friends in college would disagree. So would Ron Paul fan and prominent liberal Jon Stewart and many other intellectuals who value the contradictions Paul highlights within the Democratic party and the service his honesty provides our democracy. He continues “There’s overlap with the Republicans but there is none with the Democrats.” The long list of issues I rattled off in the last paragraph would argue otherwise.

Schlicter then states that “Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and Virgil Goode do not stand for collectivism. But right now, they stand in the way of stopping collectivism.” But that presumes Mitt Romney would do much of anything to stop collectivism; his refusal to criticize Medicare and Medicaid, promise to legislate morality on social issues, and pledge to spend trillions more on defense spending argue otherwise.

The “lesser of two evils” argument is driven home with a silly and inapplicable analogy to an axe murderer and a hubcap thief that really doesn't warrant response. But while we’re talking about murder, how can any truly principled libertarian vote for a candidate who endorses drones strikes that that kill 10 times as many civilians as they do militants? Contrary to what the author suggests, libertarian differences on neoconservative foreign policy are not trivial minutiae that can be swept under the rug for political expediency. Of course, they can be if you’re a Romney supporter whose primary objective is to get votes; they can’t be if you’re a liberty supporter whose primary objective is the defense of human beings’ natural rights.

Finally, Schlichter returns to the false choice hogwash with which he opened his editorial: “No choice is a choice, and with the polls showing a dead-even race every vote that does not go to Romney is effectively a vote for Obama. There's no debate here; you opt out and you support Obama by default.”…except, NO!!! This is such infuriating logic that I’m having difficulty finding words to explain how obviously self-contradicting it is. If this were true, then by the same token, every vote that does not go to Obama is effectively a vote for Romney! Mathematically, that doesn't happen. Voting for a candidate adds one vote to his totals; abstaining from voting does not. Even if voting for a third party candidate were the same as abstaining, and even if choosing the candidate who best aligns with your views were synonymous with “no choice”, that does not in any way impact the vote totals of the other candidates or help one more than the other.  There is no such thing as an “effective” vote or a voting “by default.” It is astounding to me just how pervasive this rhetoric can be among intelligent people.

Then after rambling about how bad Obama is for a few paragraphs, Schlichter caps it off with perhaps his most belittling insult yet: the assertion that if you’re a Ron Paul supporter who doesn’t vote for Romney, you’re simply allowing your emotions to trump reason. He brushes aside the entire rational case for voting third party, and labels it as immature sulking by people who are just “mad because Ron Paul lost and then got disrespected” and need to “put hard feelings aside.” And it’s here that Schlichter proves to the world that he just doesn’t get us. He doesn’t get what makes us tick, becaue he really thinks our votes were determined by events at the RNC. He really thinks that if Romney had played his cards right by giving Ron Paul a speech and a compliment, that Paul supporters would be flocking to him in droves like obedient little party sheep. He’s so programmed to view politics through the lens of the two-party electoral that he presumes all supporters of a losing primary candidate will eventually come around to embrace the nominee, unless that nominee does something to screw it up.

But Ron Paul supporters do not fit that mold. We are not fickle, emotional reactionaries who just need a sense of perspective before we reluctantly toe the party line; we are highly informed, principled patriots who have had the same criteria for earning our vote from the beginning. We’ve thought this out very clearly, for a very long time before this election season even began. By the time the Iowa caucus rolled around, supporting Romney was never on the table for us under any circumstances. The difference between us and the supporters of other Repubican primary candidates is that we genuinely do not prefer Romney to Obama because we see them for what they are: virtually identical. We fully recognize that without our help, Mitt Romney will probably lose. And we honestly don’t give a shit, because we also recognize that Mitt Romney is no better than Barack Obama. He does not have any more respect for our ideas than Obama does. The only way to enhance freedom in the long term is to vote for it and spread the message.

We did not try to hide decision that from you. We said throughout the entire primary that we will not vote for any Republican candidate who refuses to wholeheartedly endorse important libertarian ideals. These were not the hollow threats of frustrated partisans, but the honest promises of committed ideologues. Republicans who disregarded us then and want us to fall in line now will be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be surprised.

And when they try to convince us to change our minds, they show their real colors by doing it wrong. We know that if they truly cared about liberty, they would be just as disgusted by and unenthusiastic about Mitt Romney as we are. If they truly understood our line of thinking and wanted to convince us to help them, they’d point us towards important congressional races where Republican candidates who are actually liberty minded are running for reelection, like Kurt Bills, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, or even Ted Cruz. They’d implore us to support these people financially and vote republican in our local congressional district, because even though Romney isn’t ideal, a Republican congress could take up our issues.

It’s not that we’re unwilling to compromise. If, say, Jim DeMint were running opposite Obama, he’d have my vote. He’s a definite Republican and he disagrees with libertarians on many things, but he’s sufficiently liberty loving and sufficiently distinct from Obama to matter. Mitt Romney doesn’t fit that bill, and he hasn’t demonstrated any willingness to try to fit it. Schichter closes his argument by saying that Romney needs to “reaffirm his commitment to constitutional liberty,” but the trouble is he’s never originally affirmed it in the past. His campaign platform is mostly devoid of libertarian talking points, and his record gives little reason to believe he’ll stick to its contents anyway if elected. His record of flip-flops for political convenience place him in as stark a contrast to Ron Paul’s never-changing principled stances as possible. He is the definition of a status-quo, establishment politician. How could any libertarian vote for that?