Commentary Magazine


Topic: legalization of marijuana

The Nanny State Exception: Legal Pot

In yet another indication of the sea change in American culture, President Obama’s comments in a New Yorker interview endorsing legalization of marijuana shocked no one and generated little negative response. Of course, the public is well aware of the president’s personal history with the drug since he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father of smoking it frequently as a youngster, as well as using cocaine in high school and college. But there’s little doubt that the lack of any outrage at his statement about legalization reflects a shift toward more libertarian views on social issues. Indeed, a CBS poll released today indicates that for the first time, a majority of Americans now think pot should be legal.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of repeated use of the drug. Yet most Americans seem to agree with the president that it is no worse than cigarettes and perhaps less dangerous than alcohol. While the 51 percent who now back legalization may not have fully thought out the impact on society of allowing pot into the mainstream, there’s little doubt that the war on drugs to which so much police effort is devoted is unpopular.

But one other aspect of the issue that few have pondered is the liberal hypocrisy that the emerging consensus about legal pot has illuminated. As William Bennett and Christopher Beach pointed out in an incisive Politico magazine article today, there is a question that no one in the media is asking Obama or any other liberal advocate of opening the floodgates to more marijuana: Why do the same people that have sought to outlaw transfats and super-sized sodas while banishing cigarette smokers and seeking to criminalize anything else that can be branded as unhealthy think there’s nothing wrong with a measure that would almost certainly increase the amount of pot smoked in this country?

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In yet another indication of the sea change in American culture, President Obama’s comments in a New Yorker interview endorsing legalization of marijuana shocked no one and generated little negative response. Of course, the public is well aware of the president’s personal history with the drug since he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father of smoking it frequently as a youngster, as well as using cocaine in high school and college. But there’s little doubt that the lack of any outrage at his statement about legalization reflects a shift toward more libertarian views on social issues. Indeed, a CBS poll released today indicates that for the first time, a majority of Americans now think pot should be legal.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of repeated use of the drug. Yet most Americans seem to agree with the president that it is no worse than cigarettes and perhaps less dangerous than alcohol. While the 51 percent who now back legalization may not have fully thought out the impact on society of allowing pot into the mainstream, there’s little doubt that the war on drugs to which so much police effort is devoted is unpopular.

But one other aspect of the issue that few have pondered is the liberal hypocrisy that the emerging consensus about legal pot has illuminated. As William Bennett and Christopher Beach pointed out in an incisive Politico magazine article today, there is a question that no one in the media is asking Obama or any other liberal advocate of opening the floodgates to more marijuana: Why do the same people that have sought to outlaw transfats and super-sized sodas while banishing cigarette smokers and seeking to criminalize anything else that can be branded as unhealthy think there’s nothing wrong with a measure that would almost certainly increase the amount of pot smoked in this country?

As Bennett and Beach point out:

The same president who signed into law a tough federal anti-cigarette smoking bill in 2009 now supports marijuana legalization. The inconsistency and self-contradiction is obvious. In the name of public health, liberals wage political war against genetically modified organisms, French fries and tubby kids, yet stand idly by, or worse, support the legalization of a mind-impairing substance known to be addictive and have deleterious effects on the brain.

The very same year, for example, that Colorado legalized marijuana, the Colorado Senate passed (without a single Republican vote) a ban on trans fats in schools. Are we to believe eating a glazed donut is more harmful than smoking a joint? California has already banned trans fats in restaurants statewide, but now is on the brink of legalizing marijuana statewide come November. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to decriminalize marijuana in New York State, while at the same time supporting a ban on extra-large sodas. A 32-ounce Mountain Dew is bad for you, but pot isn’t?

Bennett and Beach supply no answers for this inconsistency, but the answer isn’t exactly a mystery. The push against cigarettes, sugared drinks and transfats reflects a popular culture that venerates health as the supreme good above almost any other value including sexual ethics. But that same liberal ethos has a soft spot for the baby boomers’ favorite illicit drug that brings back fond memories of the 1960s. Pot is, as the authors rightly note, at least as dangerous as any of the perils that the nanny state brigade seeks to outlaw. But since pot smoking is considered an integral part of pop culture coolness, liberal social engineers regard efforts to stop its spread as the preserve of “fascist” killjoys and other liberal piñatas such as religious conservatives.

Like many Americans, I am ambivalent about the utility of the war on drugs and think regulation of private vices is a lost cause. But what the liberal drive to legalize marijuana reflects isn’t so much an expression of libertarianism as it is an outright affection for a popular drug. If we are to legalize marijuana, the government should also stop telling Americans what they can eat, drink, or smoke. All the arguments we hear from nanny state advocates about the high cost to the public in terms of health care needed for those who suffer the ill effects of tobacco, sugar, and transfats can also be made about pot. It’s time for liberals to choose. If they want to be free to light up a joint, they should to stop telling other people what they can’t do. 

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