OPINION: Conservatives’ Cannabis Conundrum

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Ethan Katz GraduateSstudent, University of Florida
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On Wednesday, Canada was the first major industrialized country to legalize pot, opening itself up to a multi-billion dollar (taxable!) industry.

As Canada begins to profit from legalization, the United States is bound to rethink the only thing stopping them from taking its fair share of the profits: its federal marijuana ban.

While many assume the country is bitterly divided over legalization, 61 percent of Americans support it — up from 16 percent in 1990 — and politicians from both parties are starting to pay attention to that swift change-of-heart.

In June, Sens. Corey Gardner and Elizabeth Warren co-sponsored and introduced the bicameral, bipartisan STATES Act, which grants states total jurisdiction over pot and removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. President Trump recently announced the administration would tackle marijuana reform after the midterms.

Perhaps marijuana isn’t as stigmatized as it once was. Perhaps Americans’ greater acceptance of marijuana presents a danger to society. Conservatives have long stood in opposition to ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, but are they fighting a losing battle?

Conservatives have a number of valid arguments against legalizing marijuana. In Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, both the number of marijuana-related traffic deaths and also marijuana-related hospitalizations are up. Other arguments focus on self-evident truths: weed is often a gateway drug and severely curbs productivity.

There are certainly dangers in legalizing marijuana, that is out of the question. But other substances not federally prohibited—alcohol, tobacco, opioids — present serious dangers as well, yet conservatives recognize individuals’ rights over the government’s “right” to regulate.

Marijuana legalization, or at least the dissolution of the federal ban, has become an inevitability. Pot is no longer simply a social issue: The Republican Party risks losing even more of the coveted millennial vote to Democrats by stubbornly holding onto its stance against marijuana.

Republicans do not have to completely acquiesce to stoners’ demands and legalize pot outright to capture millennials’ attention. Republicans can dictate the terms of this inevitability while remaining true to their conservative roots by returning the decision to the states.  

Rather than spelling out the typical arguments in favor of marijuana — its medical potency, financial potential, etc.—this article specifically seeks to coalesce conservatives’ love of federalism with an argument for the legalization of marijuana.

Like most conservatives, I proudly celebrate small-government, states rights, personal responsibility, and lower taxes. But most Republicans (55 percent) are still against legalization of marijuana and, by default, support the Federal Government’s nationwide ban.

True ideological conservatives, who argued the decision over gay marriage should have been devolved to the states, should earnestly examine whether federal marijuana prohibition is compatible with these values.

For starters, the fiscal cost of enforcing marijuana prohibition is enormous. The United States spends billions every year enforcing the prohibition of a drug that is not deadly.

The same cannot be said for alcohol, which kills nearly 100,000 people annually. But since alcohol is legal, and regulated according to its dangers, it rakes in nearly ten billion dollars annually in taxes. Since Colorado legalized Marijuana in 2014, it has raised nearly a billion dollars in taxes.

In addition to new taxable revenue streams, imagine the money saved by ending the government’s futile, decades-old prohibition on marijuana. All conservatives, even those most staunchly opposed to marijuana, can get behind less taxes and less government spending.

Marijuana could easily be regulated like alcohol. Similarly to “Dry” counties, individual states (or counties) can weigh the cost-benefit of marijuana sales in their area and make a more precise decision that excludes the impersonal input of the Federal Government.

This action, the devolution of regulation from the Federal Government to the state level, would be ideologically consistent with conservatives’ prior demand that gay marriage be decided by individual states. Conservatives rightly argue in favor of federalism and posit only the states have the power to legislate on social issues.

Aside from federalism, conservative’s libertarian tendencies provide, at the very least, a convincing argument against a federal ban. Self-responsibility is perhaps the most foundational tenet of conservatism. While liberals imagine the state as a parental figure responsible for us from womb to grave, conservatives want as little interference from the government as possible.

Via self-responsibility, conservatives believe it is incumbent upon the individual to make his own choices and deal with the ramifications.

As a libertarian would argue, “If a responsible adult wants to smoke a joint in the privacy of his own home, what right does his government — or his neighbors — have to tell him otherwise?”

Conservatives stand to benefit immensely by embracing a states’ rights approach to marijuana legalization: ideological consistency, expansion of the Republican electorate and billions saved in taxes. If you are a conservative, try to reexamine this issue through a federalist or libertarian lens: both you and your pot-smoking neighbor — albeit for different reasons — will sleep easier at night.

Ethan Katz is a graduate student studying political campaigning at the University of Florida. Email Ethan at ethankatz05@gmail.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.