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In Praise Of Libertarian Judgmentalism


As a Denver Post columnist from 2004-2011, I spent a considerable amount of time writing pieces advocating for the legalization of pot. So I was happy when the state became one of the first to decriminalize small amounts of “recreational” marijuana. I believe the War on Drugs is a tragically misplaced use of resources; an immoral venture that produces far more suffering than it alleviates. And on a philosophical level, I believe that adults should be permitted to ingest whatever they desire – including, but not limited to, trans-fats, tobacco, cough syrup, colossal-sized sodas, and so on – as long as they live with the consequences.

You know, that old chestnut.

Unrealistic? Maybe. But less so than allowing myself to believe human behavior can/should be endlessly nudged, cajoled and coerced by politicians.

So, naturally, I was curious to see how marijuana sales in Colorado would shake out. According to the Denver Post, there are nearly 40 stores in Colorado licensed to sell “recreational” pot. Medical marijuana has been legal for more than a decade.  (And, having spent time covering medical pot “caregivers”– or, rather, barely coherent stoners selling cannabis to other barely coherent stoners, a majority of whom suffer from ailments that an Excedrin could probably alleviate – it will be a relief to see that ruse come to end.  I’m not saying marijuana doesn’t possess medicinal uses. I’m saying that most medicinal users are frauds.)

Not surprisingly, pot stores can’t keep up with demand for a hit of recreational tetrahydrocannabinol. Outside of Denver shops, people are waiting for up to five hours to buy some well-taxed and “regulated” cannabis. The pot tourists have also arrived. All this, the Denver Post estimates, will translate into $40 million of additional tax revenue in 2014 – the real reason legalization in Colorado became a reality.

The news coverage swung from mild bemusement to acting as if society were on the cusp of a major civil rights’ victory. For me, the entire spectacle seemed rather pathetic and anticlimactic.

The large part of my position on drugs is ideological, but some of it is familiarity. As a young person, I inhaled and yet today I can pull together the occasional lucid thought. I don’t feel like I did anything immoral. I guess, I’d have to say that I have acquaintance on par with David Brooks (regrettably, without the “uninhibited frolic”):

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

Brooks was lambasted for opposing legalization while simultaneously admitting his own criminality and conceding that it was harmless.  Now, he may be a hypocrite, but he’s no more of a fraud than those who deny the right of people to assemble and smoke “recreational” cigarettes or support any of the countless nanny-state initiative that deny people choices.

Brooks – who has an aversion to libertarianism – also argues, as many others do, that decriminalization effectively encourages drug use.  I think he overstates the case, considering the widespread tolerance, prevalence and accessibility of pot before legalization. But let’s not pretend that it’s completely absurd, either. Here’s a snippet story from a recent Denver Post article:

The rapid changes in Colorado’s marijuana laws have caused many people across the state to re-evaluate their relationship with cannabis.

Those who are curious about marijuana and plan to try it include people who have never used it, as well as those who smoked decades ago, before marriage and kids. They say they now plan to buy some marijuana because it’s easy, convenient and legal.

In the end, Brooks believes that pot use “should be discouraged more than encouraged.” That seems, in itself, to be a reasonable suggestion. Unreasonably, he believes government should discourage use by force. I believe communities, parents and individuals should discourage use through persuasion (and with something other than hysterical Drug Warrior rhetoric).

“Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life,” Brooks goes on to write.  Jonah Goldberg put it in a better in column, pointing out that non-judgmentalism is part of the secular catechism. And there are few people less judgmental about your choices than a libertarian. Fortunately, you can have it both ways. I believe prostitution should be legalized, but also stigmatized.

The problem is that Americans use the state as a moral compass. For libertarians, it is often frustrating to explain that advocating for the decriminalization of X is not synonymous with endorsing X.  It’s often easier to rationalize away the consequences of enhanced choice than to admit it exists.

Marijuana is, for the most part, is an innocuous habit. But there can be detrimental psychological and physiological effects on the human body after prolonged use. It hinders the mental capacity of people who use it excessively. No doubt, you’ve met some test subjects. Many pro-pot legalization advocates want Americans to believe that nurses, accountants, shopkeeps and local haberdashers make up the majority share of those smoking Carmelicious on weekends. Anyone who’s done any reporting on the issues understands this is preposterous. There are hordes of stoners making a “lifestyle” choice and wasting away. Is it a huge deal? Probably not. Should we criminalize slacking? No. Is it something that should discouraged? Probably. One sort of life you choose might be better than another sort of life. One imagines that most libertarian pundits who argue for legalization have higher degrees to prove it.

If libertarian ideas are winning the day, as some of those pundits insist (I’m skeptical), then government getting out of the “legislating morality” business should cut both ways. The state’s decriminalizing of an activity or substance doesn’t transform that activity or substance into a moral, healthy or admirable one. And libertarians don’t have to act like it does. You can celebrate the fact that people are free without celebrating all the dumb things those people do with their freedoms.

Like, for instance, standing on line for five hours to buy a dime bag.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.