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May 10, 2005

Conservatives Finally Coming Around on Marijuana Decriminalization?

By Andrew Dobbs

Today I was doing my usual blog check, which includes a conservative source in the National Review, and I came across a fascinating headline. The story, by confirmed right-wing moralist Rich Lowry, was linked under "The Government is Waging a War on Pot." Click through and the subtitle says "Wrong drug, wrong war." I heartily agree.

Here's some choice quotes from the story:

It used to be that drug warriors denied that marijuana was much of a focus for them, because they understandably liked people to think they were cracking down on genuinely dangerous, highly addictive drugs. No more. We are waging a war on pot, a substance less addictive and harmful than tobacco and alcohol, which presumably friends of Walters enjoy all the time with no fear of being forced to make a court appearance.

According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, in a trend Walters heartily supports, annual drug arrests increased by 450,000 from 1990 to 2002. Marijuana arrests accounted for 82 percent of the growth, and 79 percent of that was for marijuana possession alone. Marijuana arrests are now nearly half of all the 1.5 million annual drug arrests. Marijuana-trafficking arrests actually declined as a proportion of all drug arrests during this period, while the proportion of possession arrests increased by two-thirds.

Has the use of other drugs declined, prompting the focus on marijuana? No. According to the Sentencing Project: "There is no indication from national drug-survey data that a dramatic decrease in the use of other drugs led to law-enforcement agencies shifting resources to marijuana. Indeed, there was a slight increase in the use of all illicit drugs by adult users between 1992 and 2001. Over that same period, emergency-room admissions for heroin continued to increase." Drug warriors simply think it's a good thing in and of itself to arrest marijuana smokers. (...)

As Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-decriminalization group NORML, puts it, "Increased arrest rates are not associated with reduced marijuana use, reduced marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new users, reduced treatment admissions, reduced emergency-room mentions, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the price of marijuana." Besides that, the war on marijuana is a smash success.

Marijuana is not harmless, and its use should be discouraged, but in the same way, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day should be discouraged. The criminal-justice system should stay out of it. Twelve states have decriminalized marijuana to varying degrees, fining instead of arresting people for possessing small amounts. They recognize that — as the authors of a new study for the conservative American Enterprise Institute argue — "the case for imposing criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana is weak."

Notice that none other than the Lynne Cheney/Newt Gingrich/Conservative think tank AEI is now on the side of decriminalization. Here's a quote from the abstract of the aforementioned study:

Boyum and Reuter conclude that America’s drug policy should be reoriented in several ways to be more effective. Enforcement should focus on reducing drug-related problems, such as violence associated with drug markets, rather than on locking up large numbers of low-level dealers. Treatment services for heavy users, particularly methadone and other opiate maintenance therapies, need more money and fewer regulations. And programs that coerce convicted drug addicts to enter treatment and maintain abstinence as a condition of continued freedom should be expanded.

Less jail? More treatment? Access to methadone? Jeez, what kind of conservatives are these guys? They sound like a warmed over Ralph Nader. The fact of the matter is that decriminalization is an issue that conservatives, liberals and most importantly libertarians can really come together on. Conservatives and libertarians should be aghast at government involvement in private, relatively harmless activity (marijuana is the fourth most commonly used drug in America-- right behind caffine, alcohol and nicotine. Alcohol kills 100,000 people a year, nicotine 400,000. Marijuana kills maybe a dozen). Liberals should stand against the economic destruction that criminialization wreaks on minority and poor communities.

It is time for serious thinkers to agree that the prohibition of marijuana and the persecution of its casual users is a waste of our time, our money and our dignity. Even Texas has a decriminalization bill up this year (one ounce or less of marijana would now be a Class C misdemeanor-- like a traffic fine), and the bill passed out of committee unanimously. Now that we crazy hippie types that have supported decriminalization for years have some Republican allies, who knows what can happen?

Posted by Andrew Dobbs at May 10, 2005 05:46 PM | TrackBack


I wouldn't take this to be any indication of a sea change among conservatives. The National Review has long been an advocate of marijuana decriminalization, and even broader drug decriminalization. William F. Buckley has long been an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs, dating back to when he still headed up the magazine. Last summer, National Review had a cover story on marijuana decriminalization, and they invited the president of a prominent drug policy reform and decriminalization organization to write the article. However, there hasn't been much in the way of strong support or sympathy from other conservatives or others on the Right before, and I don't imagine it will come around now in any dramatic way. That being said, there does seem to be a growing overall public receptiveness to decriminalization, with medical marijuana being the thin end of the wedge. As a result, we will probably see more and more people on both sides be a little more willing to publicly advocate for this issue in years to come.

Posted by: Ramey at May 10, 2005 06:34 PM

I'd also add that the absurdity of the War on Drugs not only extends to the fact that enforcement resources and efforts are focused so overwhelmingly on the least harmful of drugs, but that related policies such as the now commonplace drug testing by private employers are equally ridiculous. Urine testing, the most widely used form of testing, is only really effective for testing marijuana use. Harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, only produce detectable byproducts for a matter of days, versus marijuana, which can be detected up to a few months later for a regular user. Yet, it should be obvious to anyone that recreational marijuana use on one's own time has little to no relevance to job performance, and at the very least, has much less relevance than cocaine, heroin, or even alcohol abuse. In fact, the only comprehensive study done on regular users of marijuana and work performance showed that regular users actually were paid more, promoted more, and received better performance evaluations than their non-using cohorts. Not to say that this correlation has anything to do with marijuana use, but that at the very least, marijuana use has no correlation to poor performance.

Posted by: Ramey at May 10, 2005 06:43 PM

Current Texas laws:


Moreover, 98 percent of the 50,000 marijuna arrests (in Texas each year) are for possession, not for sale.

In Texas, the Dutton bill might get voted on:



It would reduce penalties to class C misdemeanors.

The fiscal note for HB 254 says it is revenue neutral given the reduction in fines - offset by reduced incarceration costs. My gut feeling is that this might be too conservative.

Posted by: Jim D at May 10, 2005 08:05 PM

The Dutton bill did not get put on the House floor, so it's dead. But it was unanimously voted out of committee, with even Mary Denny and Debbie Riddle voting for it.

See also my post from yesterday on conservatives against "overcriminalization." Sure, some of it's corporate shilling, but the relevant themes are flat out opposite of historic tough on crime rhetoric, and worthy, at least, of note.

Posted by: Scott at May 12, 2005 11:06 AM
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