Going off the guardrails on ganja?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The case against marijuana legalization that appeals most to me is the “no guardrails” argument. If you’re not familiar with the theory, it essentially goes like this: Elites have the infrastructure and resources to manage vices, but when poor or working-class people take their cues from these very elites, lives are ruined. 

While it seems unrealistic for me to believe marijuana use will cause my colleagues to freak out and become drug fiends, the responsible conservative is always concerned with unintended consequences (and anyone interested in policy ought to consider how things will impact the most vulnerable among us).

“The young people most likely to become habitual users are those who already face declining opportunities,” warned David Frum in a 2012 column.

“It’s baffling to me,” he continued, “that people who profess anxiety about the trend to social inequality will so often endorse drug legalization.”

Even if his isn’t a widely espoused argument, it’s certainly not unheard of. Responding to a reader on his popular TAC blog recently, Rod Dreher sarcastically noted that “If [the commenter were right] the legalize-pot revolution will work out for the working class and the poor about as well as the sexual revolution has.”

Think the handwringing is exclusive to conservatives? In the past, I’ve shared an interesting excerpt from a Vanity Fair article about the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in 1967 — “The Summer of Love” that also speaks to this phenomenon:

Nicholas von Hoffman, of The Washington Post, who covered the Haight in a suit and tie, was, he says [by 1967], “appalled” by what he saw.

The overnight change in the attitude toward drugs was what alarmed von Hoffman. “A generation and a half before, you could back a dump truck full of cocaine into a Jesuit schoolyard and none of those boys would get near it.” Now, suddenly, he continues, “middle- and working-class kids were doing ‘vice tours,’ like American businessmen in Thailand: coming to the Haight for a few weeks, then, when the dirt between their toes got too encrusted, going home. This was when American blue-collar and middle-class kids became drug users. This was the beginning of the Rust Belt rusting.” (Emphasis mine.)

In the wake of the 1960s, this phenomenon didn’t just destroy lives, it also destroyed a lot of small towns and communities. Many would say that marijuana was the “gateway drug” that started it all.

Patronizing, or not, it makes perfect sense that — when working class people try to copy the bacchanalian lifestyles being marketed by the rich and famous in Hollywood (or, in the case of the legalization argument, by elite bloggers and opinion leaders in New York or DC who want to enjoy recreational drug use, without the unseemly business of breaking the law) — they pay a steeper price.

But the larger question persists: Does this have anything to do with decriminalization of marijuana?

A few thoughts and questions:

1. Even if one accepts the notion that poor and working-class folks are less equipped to manage such vices, this theory assumes that marijuana’s status as an illegal controlled substance actually worked as a deterrent to keep poor kids off drugs. That doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.

Yes, individuals and society are harmed when elites promote promiscuity, the rise of unwed parenthood, and recreational drug use, but can we rid ourselves of these things statutorily? (Besides, drugs became a problem in the 1960s not because they were suddenly legalized. And aren’t drugs already destroying the vulnerable, as it is?)

2. Even if one concedes the obvious — that regular marijuana use will likely negatively impact your life — President Obama’s notion that it isn’t worse than drinking alcohol isn’t absurd. Nobody serious would make this argument about cocaine or heroin, but I’m not convinced he’s wrong here.

Consider the parallels: It would be a bad idea to drink all the time. And one could certainly also argue that alcohol also disproportionately harms those most susceptible. (My grandfather’s alcoholism was probably less sophisticated — and potentially more damaging to his family — than it might have been had it merely involved sipping chardonnay on his yacht.) But should we support prohibition of alcohol. And if the government doesn’t prohibit alcohol, does that mean they are tacitly endorsing its abuse, and thus, the destruction of families and communities?

3. Does criminalization actually exacerbate the problem for the vulnerable? While using marijuana can certainly make it harder for someone to climb the ladder of success, being arrested for marijuana possession will most certainly make that climb all but impossible (and, once in prison, a small-time drug user will likely become a bona fide criminal).

These are all valid questions. And, I would suggest, it is entirely possible for a cultural conservative to believe in the no guardrails theory, oppose drug abuse, and still argue that decriminalization is probably a good idea.

So what’s the answer? Is there a compromise? I’m not sure. But perhaps Ross Douthat was on to something when he argued that “one can support decriminalizing marijuana possession, as many states have done, while still doubting the prudence of legalizing (and, of course, taxing) its open manufacture and sale.”

Matt K. Lewis