Brian Birdnow

Last week, in a wide ranging interview, California governor and reformed hippie Jerry Brown struck an admirably prudent, restrained, and even conservative note when he stated that he would not openly support marijuana legalization in California before seeing how such legislation worked out in the practical sense in Colorado and Washington. Governor Brown also cautioned that American creativity and competitiveness might suffer in such a world. He stated “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state, or a great nation?” This is a far cry from the Governor Moonbeam of the 1970s.

In some ways Brown does illuminate an obscured issue in the current atmosphere of a more relaxed attitude toward recreational drugs and a corresponding pendulum swing against the draconian mood of the so-called “War on Drugs”, circa 1990. The underlying question is simple: Where does a free society draw the line? Do individuals have the right to determine their own conduct, as long as their activities do not harm, or infringe upon the rights of others? Does society have “carte blanche” to ban, or severely limit activities that might have a socially deleterious effect? It might be time to engage in a serious philosophical discussion on this topic.

The libertarian view of marijuana use, currently a popular attitude nationwide, is consistent, as libertarian views always are. The libertarians consider marijuana use to be strictly a personal choice. It is no one’s nosiness but your own, and society through power of government and the law, should have no power to ban or restrict this activity. In addition to the libertarian philosophical argument against drug laws, the pro-legalization side argues that ending drug laws would simply ratify an existing situation, essentially decriminalizing a habit of millions of people. Finally, the pro-legalization forces state that society would derive great benefits from decriminalizing marijuana in terms of a huge tax windfall. This would obviously appeal to otherwise dubious politicians.

These arguments are all persuasive, except for the tax revenue urging, which would be plain foolish. What could be good about giving politicians more money to squander? Before we jump headlong into this new drug abyss, perhaps we should take Jerry Brown’s advice and look a little more closely at what we may be doing. The reasons for caution and prudence in this case are also many and deserve at least a cursory examination.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.