In the Arena

Marijuana Next

Why I'm for legalizing marijuana.

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A bowl of medicinal marijuana is displayed in a booth at The International Cannabis and Hemp Expo April 18, 2010 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif.

With Republicans in a chaotic retreat on social issues like gay marriage and immigration, some conservatives are looking for places to set up a skirmish line. Pete Wehner proposes marijuana as the bright line today in the Washington Post. 

I’ve been for legalization for years. But I think Wehner’s argument deserves a respectful read because he raises at least one crucial question for our society. Most of his arguments against dope come from a different era. He assumes a bright line between alcohol and “drugs.” He assumes that marijuana is the entry drug on an inevitable path toward addiction. (He also seems to infer that marijuana is addictive.)

Most of these arguments seem ridiculous to anyone who has inhaled. Alcohol is a more controllable drug than marijuana—you can pace yourself according to consumption; pot strength is unpredictable—but when used to excess it is far more problematic, more violent, more dangerous. Pot is peaceful, contemplative, fattening.

Does marijuana lead to harder drugs? No more than alcohol does. Back in the 1930s, smoking dope was a leap into a sometimes dangerous underground culture. That’s not true any more, especially in states like Colorado and California. Alcohol is as likely an entry point to the world of mind-altering substances as pot is. Those who move on to harder drugs—and the infinitesimal minority who get hooked on harder drugs—would do so if marijuana were legal or not.

Would more people move on to drug-addled dissolution if marijuana were legalized? Wehner thinks so; I’m not so sure. But here’s where Wehner has a point: legalization of marijuana would compound the cascade of society toward unlimited individual rights—a trend that can be catastrophic if there isn’t a countervailing social emphasis on personal and civic responsibility. It might well accelerate the trend toward the couchification of American life; it certainly would not be a step toward the social rigor we’re going to need to compete in a global economy.

I’m for legalizing marijuana. It is a relatively mild, non-addictive drug. It is simply illogical for alcohol to be legal and pot not. But I’m also for searching out some civic rituals—some form of national service—that will inoculate young people with the understanding that they are part of something larger than themselves, that helping others, sacrificing a tiny increment of your freedom to make your community a better place, can be a different sort of high. Because if, in the mad dash toward pleasure and passivity, we lose track of our citizenship and the rigorous demands of a true working democracy, we may lose the social webbing that makes the pursuit of happiness possible.