Last November, more than 75 percent of voters in Mississippi voted to legalize medical marijuana. By February, neighboring Alabama’s Senate had passed its own legalization bill for the third year in a row. Of Alabama’s four neighboring states, only Tennessee still treats all marijuana possession as a crime. If this is where weed stands in the deep south, its legalization recreationally in 18 states (as of this writing) should not be surprising. More than 128 million Americans now live in these states, including New Mexico, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Virginia, and nearly 224 million live in states that have legalized medical marijuana use. According to an April 2021 Pew poll, more than 90 percent of Americans (and more than 80 percent of self-described political conservatives) now support legalization in some form, with 60 percent in favor of recreational legalization. Given this reality, conservative leaders should reconsider their traditionally hostile approach to marijuana and embrace the end of state cannabis prohibition as both good policy and an embodiment of core conservative principles.
As the conservative economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell is fond of observing, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” In his book Basic Economics, he elaborates, “Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses.” So how does this thinking apply to cannabis? For nearly a hundred years, the great symbol of government overreach by progressives has been the effort to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol, which resulted in a constitutional amendment adopted and reversed in less than 15 years. The United States learned the hard way that the costs of trying to enforce alcohol prohibition (increased gang violence, trafficking, and aggressive policing) far outweighed the benefits (reduced consumption of alcohol and its attendant social ills).
Rather than learning this lesson, however, the prohibitionists simply shifted their attention to drugs. Federal efforts at drug prohibition began in 1915, but found their institutional footing in 1930 with the establishment of the Bureau of Narcotics, which became the home of roughly 450 federally employed enforcement agents. By then, alcohol prohibition was rapidly losing credibility, but fear of marijuana was rising. Described as a “killer drug” by popular posters of the time, the Bureau of Narcotics drafted a report warning that this kind of publicity “tends to magnify the extent of the problem.” Even so, by 1938, Harry Anslinger (Bureau commissioner for a remarkable 32 years) was calling cannabis “one of the most dangerous and depraving narcotics known” and claiming that “the consumption of one marihuana cigarette is sufficient to push the psycho-neurotic type of person from sanity to madness.”
The Bureau’s enforcement powers grew through the 1950s, but it was the tumult of the 1960s that refocused American attention on marijuana. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act. The new law established the five drug “schedules” still used to categorize drugs today, according to which cannabis was classified as a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” This set the stage for the consolidation and growth of a sprawling drug prohibition bureaucracy. By 2019, the Drug Enforcement Agency had a budget of over $3 billion and more than 10,000 employees. The cost of government participation in marijuana prohibition has been estimated to reach $40 billion (an attempt to account for government expenses and lost taxes). The cost to the lives of non-violent individuals caught in the vast government drug enforcement apparatus is no doubt even steeper—according to Pew, a third of American drug arrests in 2018 were for marijuana possession.
And what has all this time, effort, and money purchased? According to the annual “Monitoring the Future” study administered by the University of Michigan, 55 percent of high school seniors in 1975 said they had used an illicit drug of one kind or another at some point in their lives. By 2020, that number stood at 48 percent and dropped to just 18 percent when marijuana use wasn’t considered. In other words, 50 years into the war on drugs, about the same percentage of high school seniors reported using an illegal drug, and most of them had only tried weed. All of which means that the vast government programs designed to monitor, catch, and punish users of illicit drugs are justified in large part by the ongoing prohibition of cannabis, a near century-long effort that has produced negligible results.
So, what are the trade-offs involved in trying to enforce marijuana prohibition while allowing (or even encouraging) legal alternatives, such as alcohol and opioids? In the latter case, we have seen the proliferation of drugs like OxyContin, which helped fatal opioid overdoses reach a reported peak of nearly 50,000 in 2019. Of those deaths, more than 14,000 came from the use of prescription opioids alone, which have killed more than 10,000 people every year for the past 15 years. Numerous studies have found marked decreases in opioid usage and deaths in states that legalize cannabis. The total known cannabis overdose deaths in human history is zero. Since some people need treatment for pain relief, of the two principal treatments on offer (weed or pills), weed is by far the safer choice. Yet marijuana prohibition creates the opposite reality.
The case of alcohol is more subtle, but similar. No one writes prescriptions for vodka or beer, but it’s not hard to see why prohibitionists banned them. According to the National Institute of Health, an estimated 95,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes. Another study found that 37 percent of those convicted of homicide were found to have been drunk at the time it was committed. Alcohol has long been acknowledged as an aggravating factor in cases of domestic violence. Cannabis can be habit-forming and the legalization of pot will likely result in more widespread use. Still, if people are going to get intoxicated, it makes sense to provide access to relatively safe alternatives that do not aggravate existing propensities for violent behavior.
Some conservatives contend that the pacifying effects of cannabis also pose their own dangers that a nihilistic corporate class and a feckless political establishment have not been slow to exploit. As Tucker Carlson put it, “Does it bother you when big business and government align to make young people more passive and compliant?” Cannabis is indeed becoming stronger—the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydocannabinol (THC), and in legal states it is not uncommon to find dried flower containing 30 percent or concentrate products of 80 percent or more. Edibles (such as infused brownies) and new methods of consumption (such as dabbing) aim to maximize the potency and quantity of THC released into the user’s brain.
It is also true that some existing legal markets embody crony capitalism. The number of available licenses to grow, produce, or sell cannabis products is often kept artificially low and won through application processes that can take a year or longer. A credible license application can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the chances of success remain low in a process rife with opportunities for corruption. This says nothing of the overly complex regulatory structure many states are busy creating. These regulations have led to the growth of well-financed “multi-state operators” who can buy their way into state markets and turn hundreds of millions of dollars in top-line revenue into billions of dollars of publicly traded equity.
But claims that cannabis use makes you dumber or more passive are thinly supported. While I am not aware of any research that shows pot use makes users lazier, there are studies that indicate decreased IQ among heavy teenage users. However, this should not preclude adult use and there are plenty of talented and productive people whose regular use of marijuana has not been a barrier to success, from Dave Chappelle and Willie Nelson to Steve Jobs. As Carl Sagan once wrote, “The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for many human frontiers. … When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. … The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate.”
The lack of conservative leadership on this issue is perhaps most keenly felt on the economic side of things, since the cannabis industry creates opportunities for small businesses and domestic manufacturing. Oklahoma legalized medical marijuana following a referendum in June 2018. The vote was 57 percent to 43 percent in a state where every statewide and federal elected office is held by a Republican, and Republicans hold a super majority in both the state House and Senate. Three months later, the state began accepting business license applications—light-speed by government standards. As of April 2021, more than 11,500 businesses had been licensed to serve more than 380,000 patients in a market the annual size of which has already topped $800 million.
New York State, on the other hand, legalized medical marijuana in 2014, but didn’t make its first sale for another 18 months. Today, the state has licensed just 10 businesses, and may soon achieve 150,000 registered patients in a market dominated by large multi-state operators like Curaleaf (market capitalization $10 billion). Its population is nearly five times the size of Oklahoma’s. So, a state governed according to conservative principles has demonstrated how those principles can create a new industry with widespread and equitable participation. An ostensibly progressive state, meanwhile, demonstrates how leftist ideas create inequitable, slow-moving markets that enrich a select few.
Cannabis legalization also offers an opportunity to advance federalism. Many states allow towns to either ban or tax cannabis businesses in their jurisdictions, further devolving control from the state level. Meanwhile, continuing federal prohibition prevents cannabis products from being imported or shipped across state lines, ensuring that the more than 300,000 jobs created by the industry so far cannot be easily relocated. These are jobs with opportunities for rapid advancement, unaccompanied by a credentialing bureaucracy, and which encourage skills in manufacturing and operations that can help rebuild the manufacturing economy conservatives say they want to see.
The “common-good” conservatism promoted by parts of the Right holds that government has proper reasons for influencing the moral behavior of its citizens, including infringing on their speech and property rights. But this claim rings false in the United States, where we have relied on the private morality of the citizenry to ensure public morality since the time of John Adams. The law may delimit certain behaviors, but in the case of cannabis, it is enough to prescribe age limits and to enforce child-resistant packaging requirements. Given the relatively benign nature of weed, it is odd that cannabis prohibition is often invoked as a defense of child welfare while more toxic substances like alcohol and tobacco remain available.
Alcohol enjoys cultural and traditional connections—from Jewish blessings over wine to German beer halls and Irish pubs—that marijuana lacks, so it is understandable that conservatives may be willing to let that particular vice stand while raising concerns about others. They fret that a proliferation of head shops and unkempt stoners will only further the decline of an already-debased society. But, given the costs associated with an alcohol culture, it is worth considering whether or not its replacement—at least in part—by a culture of cannabis would be a bad thing. There is a tendency to romanticize the glamor of Humphrey Bogart ordering a scotch or Bette Davis throwing back a martini. But authors like Dorothy Parker punctured the mystique of liquor in stories like “Big Blonde,” which reimagines the frivolous party girl as a gentle soul pushed into a drunken suicidal torpor by acquaintances uninterested in allowing her “moods” to “spoil everything.” In the end, she is left praying “without addressing a God, without knowing a God” to “let her be able to get drunk, please keep her always drunk.”
In 1971, when Nixon told Congress that drug abuse was a national crisis “afflicting both the body and soul of America,” he wasn’t really talking about drugs, he was using the White House to fight the culture war. This much was evident when he hosted Johnny Cash and asked him to play “Okie from Muskogee,” which opens with the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” By fighting a war on drugs, conservatives thought they could make “drugs” stand in for a suite of larger social ills, such as the rising number of children born out of wedlock and the anomie that followed what French novelist Michel Houellebecq calls the “metaphysical mutation” of the 1960s. It is time to acknowledge that this battle-plan has failed, and that whatever cultural restoration conservatives crave will not be delivered by prohibition.
Even though the illiberal temptation to ban mind-altering substances has frequently been a progressive tendency derived from mistaken notions about the perfectibility of man, conservative leaders have found themselves defending it. But conservative principles offer a politically painless means of retreating from the failed war on drugs, and the prohibition of marijuana, in particular. They should support a federal policy that neither endorses nor prohibits the right of states, towns, and people across the country to decide for themselves how they want to handle this particular plant.
Matthew Roy Ackerman is working on a novel and writes regularly on Substack. He has also worked in the legal cannabis industry in the north-eastern United States since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewAckerman.