Marijuana Legalization & 4/20: Civil Society Dissent

    Chemdawg marijuana plants in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Canada, October 29, 2019 (Blair Gable/Reuters)

    Today is 4/20, which has become, for complicated reasons, a “holiday” of sorts for enthusiasts of weed. Every year, it seems they have more to celebrate: Legalization is spreading, the legal marijuana industry is booming, and more and more people are open to using this particular drug, or are at least less disapproving of others’ use. My own views on pot have gone back and forth over the years. At this moment, I lean against, without much of a desire to defend or to inherit all of the drug war’s legacy, but with a concern that we are rushing into this too quickly without considering the possible consequences. I am well aware that the current reality on the ground makes my view unrealistic (and in dissent from National Review‘s own editorial line). Still, there is one complaint I would like to make that I do not think is rendered moot by the sheer unpopularity and infeasibility of my general position at this moment. And one pot proponent’s account has reminded me of it.

    In Reason magazine, Liz Wolfe has written a paean to weed, claiming that, “amid an impressive amount of worldly despair, smoking weed made our lost pandemic year not good exactly, but more joyful for many people — myself included.” At a time when so much of the world was closed off to her and to many others, the drug provided for them a form of inner, solitary recreation and enjoyment. “People need play, and when that’s been taken away from you, you must make do with the plaything of your own mind,” she writes. And, in defiance of the shrinking number that favor some kind of limitations on marijuana usage, she asserts that, of all the tributes she could have written to how she has derived pleasure during a largely unpleasurable time, “a paean to the act of getting high feels more fitting since this private, peaceful, solitary act is still one that some people still seek to condemn, as if this little bit of respite in a time of hardship is any business of theirs at all.” 

    She is right that it is increasingly not the business of anyone else. And I try not to begrudge anyone’s pandemic-era accommodations; it has been a difficult time for us all. But Wolfe’s account brought to mind an aspect of this period that has bothered me. In large part due to the impositions of various governments, many other avenues of life were closed off to her (and to the rest of us), leaving this as one of a reduced number of options to derive solace and comfort in life. Indeed, this was true from the start. Around this time last year, marijuana dispensaries were deemed essential businesses, while many others were not so lucky. And, on the whole, far less luckier were institutions of voluntary association, such as houses of worship, which at this time last year were closed virtually everywhere. And most of them are still in various conditions of restriction (some after having fought off even worse restrictions).

    I am not trying to make a cheap shot here, or to identify a kind of double standard: “Pothead Libertarians Happy to Smoke, Don’t Care about Church.” For one thing, this is not true. The consistent libertarians of Reason magazine have covered the struggles of houses of worship against government regulations during this period well. And Wolfe herself has written eloquently about religion and its importance. Last October, reviewing Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton, Wolfe identified as a Christian, and observed of the ersatz faiths, assembled on the fly by their new adherents, that Burton covers:

    This rise in choice is good for personal autonomy, but these new religions tend to be thin on community building. Burton’s thoughtful analysis bolsters the sense that these young, syncretic religions might be less durable than traditional communities of faith.

    It seems not to have been the case for Wolfe, who does not “think weed or psychedelics should be verboten for believers.” But my concern here is not so much her double standard, which I’ve already admitted as fallacious, as it is the government’s. One form of activity, one that involved solitary pursuit of pleasure, the state did not obstruct; a different form of activity, one that involved the building of community, the association of individuals, and the formulation of mutual interests independent of the state, the state saw fit at first to forbid and still sees fit to restrict. There is a kind of perversion in this, I think, that arises partly as a consequence of the nature of individuals vs. civil society: The former is simply harder to regulate, whereas the latter, in carving out a recognized, public niche in society, becomes more easily intelligible to the state for control. 

    But in this perversion I also see a possible lesson. Wolfe is undoubtedly correct that marijuana regulation was once pervasive and is now declining, and as someone interested in the drug, she is acting rationally to celebrate this. But in the different treatments of these two activities by a state that libertarians generally still recognize and accept as growing and a threat to liberty, one can, I think, identify which of these activities the state might feel more threatened by (still-extant restrictions on pot use notwithstanding). An expanded state that is content to let people enjoy their pot but that still regulates them in other ways, such as associationally, does not strike me as a gigantic victory for liberty. 

    Again, I am sure that Wolfe would prefer both forms of this freedom, as libertarians tend to. But in this, there is a discernible weakness in a worldview that does not recognize the ways in which certain forms of increased individual autonomy can coexist, and perhaps exist in a sort of feedback loop with an expanded state and concomitant diminution of civic associational life. And even if Wolfe doesn’t fall victim to this, I fear a culture in which others do, with marijuana serving as a kind of analgesic (or, at its worst extreme, a new religion unto itself), as the hollowing out of the vast space between individuals and the state proceeds apace, ultimately leaving us less free, or at least with more of a freedom that is fundamentally shallow. 

    I might be overreacting; I am fully aware that I am a stick in the mud here. But I don’t think you have to be scared of reefer madness to worry about the trend I describe.

    Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online.

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