Marijuana law reform has turned into quite a hot issue as of late: four states plus the District of Columbia now allow recreational use, and several more are considering full legalization or decriminalization via legislation or voter initiative.
More than half of all states have some form of medical marijuana program enacted, with new programs and expansion of existing programs also under consideration. The question (at least, in the context of the ballot measure being proposed to Nevada voters) was even posed to the presidential candidates at the Democratic debate last month, and with respect to the front-runners, Bernie Sanders appeared to be in favor of full legalization, while Clinton's response was lukewarm, but did seem to be against federal interference in such state measures.
I consider myself the progressive liberal black sheep in a family of mostly Reagan Republicans, so it's not often that I find an issue on which both sides of our political spectrum can agree. That being said, I think it is a mistake to consider the issue of cannabis reform, both medical and recreational, as being only an issue for liberals.
Despite a never-ending parade of headlines that suggests we are more polarized than ever before in our history, there have been a few issues in recent years, such as mass incarceration and surveillance, which have gained traction with members of both parties. Furthermore, we are going to have to enlist the support of moderates and conservatives if we hope to continue the recent streak of legal victories regarding this issue (with the exception of the recent voter initiative in Ohio).
Traditionally, it seems that marijuana law reform has been an issue that only interested the ends of the spectrum: progressive liberals who loved their pot in college and perhaps still do, or at least support others who do, and libertarians suspicious of virtually any sort of government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens. I would submit, however, that there are plenty of aspects to this issue that traditional conservatives and moderates can embrace.
Let's start with costs: Conservatives are typically quite vocal about the need to balance the federal budget and reduce both the deficit and national debt. Bearing that in mind, American taxpayers have spent over a trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs. One trillion is an astronomical number, even when applied to the spending habits of a world superpower.
Granted, not all of that has been spent on marijuana prohibition, but for all that money we have not made the slightest dent in either the supply of drugs entering the country or the demand for them by our citizens. One of the most obvious consequences of marijuana law reform would be immediate savings of billions of dollars in costs related to investigation, enforcement, probation, and incarceration, freeing up resources that would be better spent treating addiction to drugs that actually cause significant harm.
Next up is another conservative principle, protection of private property rights. Numerous instances of civil asset forfeiture abuses, many of them related to marijuana arrests, have come to light in the past few years. Police in many jurisdictions have the ability to seize cash or property with little to no due process under increasingly broad interpretations of "probable cause", even when there is insufficient evidence for a criminal indictment. This leaves citizens with the difficult task of attempting to prove the innocence of their property in order to recover it, and while such laws have been utilized legitimately against criminal kingpins, in many cases the practice amounts to nothing more than a perfectly legal shakedown.
Finally, we come to limiting the size and scope of government, and along with this we must also consider the states' rights argument. I personally do not care for this particular line of reasoning, as historically it has been used to promote some pretty terrible (read: racist) ideas, but if it gets people in the door perhaps we could utilize other arguments to convince them. Conservatives are always saying that they want the federal government's interference in our daily lives to be negligible, so would that philosophy not also apply here as well?
The question of whether we should legalize cannabis for recreational use is one that we should debate as a society, but the debate as to whether it has any medicinal value is over. Numerous medical and scientific organizations have come to this conclusion, and the remaining scientific debate has shifted to determining which conditions respond favorably and how the medication should be dosed and administered.
If your Thanksgiving dinner table is anything like mine, you will probably spend some time arguing over turkey and wine with relatives who watch Fox News all day, but that could pose a unique opportunity on this issue, if nothing else.
We may not agree on much, but surely the vast majority of us can come together in answering one simple question: Who should decide what is and is not medicine in this country -- doctors and scientists, or cops and lawyers? Let's have a grown-up conversation as a society about cannabis based on facts and evidence, not overblown rhetoric and emotion.