For good or ill - and we suspect it is the latter - the nation took another step down the road to legalizing marijuana this week. Washington state's first licensed marijuana shops opened Tuesday to lines of hundreds of customers. Washington thus follows on the heels of Colorado in making marijuana legally available for "recreational users" in return for hefty taxes on the product.
William F. Buckley, generally regarded as the father of modern conservatism, was noted for his seemingly anti-conservative argument that all drugs should be legalized.
Not that Buckley thought drugs were harmless or a good thing. "If I could turn a single latch which would make all the drugs disappear from the face of the earth, with the exception of here and there, a vineyard in Bordeaux, I would turn that latch," he said.
Rather, said Buckley, "My position on drugs is â ¦ the drug laws aren't working, and that more net damage is being done by their continuation on the books than would be done by withdrawing them." As a comparison, Buckley said, "If you were to pass a law requiring people to go to church on Sunday, it wouldn't work â ¦ you would eventually simply withdraw such a law."
Buckley's analysis was largely rooted in costs, both monetary and social. He reasoned that drug enforcement occupies the time of 400,000 policemen. He said there are other intangible costs to society, such as fear of walking through a park at night lest one encounter thugs doing a drug deal.
Asked if legalization would lead to broader drug use, Buckley contended the answer was no. He said there would continue to be a moral stigma related to drug use, the same type that leads people to limit drinking or not drink at all. It is an imperfect solution, but in Buckley's view, it's the best society can do.
It is an interesting argument and the sort of argument many backers of legalized pot make today. They contend that by legalizing sales of the marijuana, one eliminates a lot of police work, unburdens the courts of marijuana cases, and reduces jail and prison populations.
Unfortunately the logical extension of that argument is that you could eliminate all crimes and all police work by simply making nothing illegal. Society has to draw lines somewhere, and the line on marijuana has been drawn for some pretty solid reasons. It is a psychoactive drug that can have a permanent effect on users' personalities, particularly young users. It is addictive to that segment of the population that is predisposed to addictions. It impairs mental and physical functions, such that driving under its influence remains a crime everywhere and on-the-job use is grounds for termination.
Further, legalization appears to be taking away much of the moral stigma Buckley had counted on to keep expanded use of the drug in check. An article in Wednesday's Sun about the Washington state sales noted that the Seattle city attorney, who said he had not used marijuana since college, was among the first in line. Obviously he felt that since the drug is now legal, it is fine for reputable people to use it.
Buckley's plan also counted on legal drugs being sold at break-even. Anything more he said would simply support the black market that legalization is intended to destroy. But prices in the Seattle marijuana shops are well above street prices - about $20 a gram, with one-fourth of that made up of taxes.
If legalized marijuana could, as Buckley envisioned, destroy the black market with no discernable increase in use by the population, it might indeed be worth doing. We suspect however that as real world experience in Colorado and Washington unfolds, reality will once again prove that life just is not that simple.