For good or for ill, it looks like the country is heading down the road to becoming the stoner republic. Maybe they'll replace the eagle on our passports with tie dye and an imprint Bob Marley.
Make no mistake, President Obama's statement in a New Yorker interview, widely reported last weekend, that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer'' will have an accelerating effect on legalization efforts, much as did the president's reversal of views on gay marriage. Obama said he views smoking marijuana as "a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person."
We would suggest that many people, inside and outside the medical field, consider marijuana use a lot more dangerous than that, particularly when it is done by developing adolescents. But it is hard to deny that public support for legalizing marijuana use is shifting rapidly.
A Gallup poll last year showed for the first time that a clear majority of Americans, 58 percent, now support legalization.
Already Colorado and Washington have legalized "recreational" use of marijuana via the voter referendum mechanism. Earlier this month the New Hampshire House of Representatives became the first state legislative body to approve recreational use and sale of marijuana, and a broader effort is afoot in New England, led by none other than former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy.
Illinois just legalized "medical marijuana" and while Kentucky appears nowhere close to going down that road, the House Health and Welfare Committee did hold a hearing on the subject earlier this month, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo says he is "open to listening to the debate."
We suspect the day will soon arrive when Kentucky finds itself sorely tempted. In the 1980s it was the widely accepted view that marijuana, not tobacco, was the state's number one cash crop. More sophisticated eradication efforts likely put a dent in that over the next several decades, but the revenue potential of legalizing and taxing pot has probably not been lost on lawmakers.
That is an unfortunate aspect of this trend. State legislators, forever in search of more money, have increasingly turned to state-regulated vice as a source of new funds. Casino gambling has been the focus the past couple of decades, but the potential new revenue from licensing marijuana growers and taxing marijuana sales has more than a few legislators in Kentucky and across the country starting to inhale.
However the calculus is not that simple. Government ought to stand for something, and urban legends to the contrary, marijuana can be addictive. Addiction of any type takes its toll on the person, their family and society. Legalized marijuana also creates a whole new potential class of impaired drivers, some of whom will kill innocent people and others who more generally will create new problems for law enforcement and courts to deal with.
There is a flip side to this argument, one having some of its origin in "the father of modern conservatism," William F. Buckley. He contended that by legalizing and regulating a drug like marijuana, society has better control of both the drug and the user.
If one assumes marijuana makes up half the drug trade in the U.S. and it is legalized and regulated, organized crime takes a huge blow. Jails and courthouses now clogged with marijuana possession and sales cases are freed of the burden. Police, no longer required to enforce marijuana laws, focus on other things. On balance, the argument goes, that is a better system than what we have now.
It is an intellectually compelling argument, but in real life, things are seldom so simple. Whether society is better off or worse off with legalization is an open question for now, but it looks like whether we like it or not, we're going to find out.