The Marijuana and Conservatism Debate - by

Professor Mary Grabar and NewsReal's David Swindle go toe-to-toe on the right response to the war on drugs.

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Professor and writer Mary Grabar had a recent piece at Pajamas Media responding to the death of a man who choked on a baggie of marijuana. Grabar wrote a critique of libertarians' advocacy for legalized marijuana in response. FrontPage's Associate Editor, David Swindle, engaged Grabar in debate at NewsReal Blog. Grabar was gracious enough to respond at NewsReal. FrontPage presents this dialogue thus far.

David Swindle:

At Pajamas Media today Mary Grabar, a thoughtful writer and an acquaintance, has an effective piece in response to a recent tragic death which has reopened an important issue that’s not discussed nearly enough:

A truly sad story about a 23-year-old Panama City man dying while being subdued by Bay County sheriff’s deputies has reawakened the debate about the legalization of marijuana. On December 11, 2009, Andrew Grande choked on a plastic bag full of marijuana as police attempted to arrest him on a violence charge. A video shows police valiantly trying to save his life once it became apparent that he was having difficulty breathing.

Two talk show hosts in Panama City have been discussing the case in the early morning hours — and revealing a divide on the right. Burnie Thompson of WYOO, the libertarian, has called Grande “a casualty of the war on drugs” and contended that because marijuana is illegal, Grande felt “compelled” to swallow a bag of it to avoid punishment.

Mary then presents a number of pro-drug war arguments and rebuttals to common libertarian, pro-legalization points. She highlights the traditional role of alcohol and the countercultural nature of marijuana. She points out that marijuana use  hampers,

the work ethic, emotional engagement, sexual inhibition, and the ability to reason.

She notices that her stoner students who advocate for drug legalization do so in an incoherent fashion. She invokes conservative icon Barry Goldwater. (However she fails to mention that Goldwater supported medicinal marijuana in his later years.)

I’m sorry Mary but I remain thoroughly unpersuaded.

The arguments for drug legalization are numerous, and so as to avoid being dismissed as one of Prof. Grabar’s Jeff Spicoli students I’ll focus on one. (If Mary would like to engage the issue further then perhaps I’ll offer more.)

A single question for which all self-described “conservatives” should have a fairly similar answer: what is the purpose of the government as the founders intended?

The federal government does not exist to make the world better. It’s not here to eliminate poverty. (Look at inner city ghettos to see how effective the Left’s efforts have been.) It’s not supposed to try and make sure that more people can buy homes. (Look at the economic crash of 2008.) The founders never intended a government which would require all citizens to buy health insurance. (Look into a crystal ball of how the next few years will turn out.) When government is shifted toward bringing about some form of utopia it fails.

The purpose of government is to protect a free society. It’s to allow for a country in which the individual is sovereign, in which every man and woman can pursue his own destiny as they see fit. If they want to create jobs and raise families they can. If they want to destroy themselves then that’s their freedom.

So how does throwing people into jail for growing and consuming a plant fit into this understanding of government?

It does not.

Thus it makes sense that Goldwater was hardly the only important conservative whose opinion of marijuana softened over the years. William F. Buckley, Jr. went even further, advocating full-blown legalization in 2004. Perhaps it’s best we close with some of his words on the subject:

And although there is a perfectly respectable case against using marijuana, the penalties imposed on those who reject that case, or who give way to weakness of resolution, are very difficult to defend. If all our laws were paradigmatic, imagine what we would do to anyone caught lighting a cigarette, or drinking a beer. Or — exulting in life in the paradigm — committing adultery. Send them all to Guantanamo?

Legal practices should be informed by realities. These are enlightening, in the matter of marijuana. There are approximately 700,000 marijuana-related arrests made very year. Most of these — 87 percent — involve nothing more than mere possession of small amounts of marijuana. This exercise in scrupulosity costs us $10-15 billion per year in direct expenditures alone. Most transgressors caught using marijuana aren’t packed away to jail, but some are, and in Alabama, if you are convicted three times of marijuana possession, they’ll lock you up for 15 years to life. Professor Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, writing in National Review, estimates at 100,000 the number of Americans currently behind bars for one or another marijuana offense.

Such reforms would hugely increase the use of the drug? Why? It is de facto legal in the Netherlands, and the percentage of users there is the same as here. The Dutch do odd things, but here they teach us a lesson.

Mary Grabar:

I will respond to your post, David, because it, like many of the posts in response to my column points to a very important divide in the conservative/libertarian movement.  Thank you for the opportunity.

Your post also points to a war of ideas, a war that conservative strategists have ignored to their peril.  We lost the last election because we lost the culture war.  I make that claim based on my experience of teaching college for almost twenty years.  I have been in the middle of the culture wars, have seen its impact on young people and seen it played out on the political field.  Make no mistake about it: The Left strategized for the long term and outlined their plans in 1962 in the Port Huron Statement.

Conservatives have been playing defense ever since.  My tenured Leftist colleagues declare victory publicly and loudly.

Many, including those on our side, have simply forgotten the traditions and values that inform the fight.

Many of the young have been brought up on the liberalism now reigning in our culture.  It is a culture that says that all values are relative, that all matters of morality are a function of personal choice.  This also seems to be the tack of a certain strain of libertarianism.

These libertarians rightly want to be left alone to live their lives.  They want to be free to make their own decisions about health care and how they spend their money.  They want to be free to protect themselves with firearms.  I agree with all these goals.

But I often see something very reactionary in the responses that are made whenever laws affecting such social issues as drug use or prostitution come into play.  An apt display is radio talk show host Burnie Thompson’s reference to Andrew Grande [who swallowed the bag of marijuana] as “a casualty of the war on drugs.”  The statement, of course, ignores a central tenet of libertarianism, which is personal responsibility.

I think it also points to a certain absolutist world view, which goes something like “if we put any restrictions on marijuana all our freedoms are at peril.”  But this absolutist worldview is based on an either/or fallacy.  It promotes anarchy more than libertarianism.  It assumes that we are a society of atomistic individuals; it can exist only in a cultural vacuum.  The fact that I am accused of advocating “collectivism” because I favor keeping marijuana illegal I think is indicative.

It is displayed, I think, by your proclamation,

“The federal government does not exist to make the world better.  It’s not here to eliminate poverty. . . . It’s not supposed to try and make sure people can buy homes. . . . The founders never intended a government which would require all citizens to buy health insurance. . . . When government is shifted toward bringing about some form of utopia it fails.”

I agree on all these points, but fail to see how they are connected to the legalization of marijuana.  Certainly, our government regulates substances it deems dangerous, doesn’t it?  It regulates certain drugs by prescription and outlaws others that are deadly.  That government regulation of a substance considered harmful will necessarily lead to infringements on all our freedoms seems to be a slippery slope argument.

Like many of my detractors, you point to the harmlessness of the drug.  But people are not thrown “in jail” for “growing and consuming a plant.”  Surely, you would have to agree that marijuana is not just a “plant” that you would grow in your garden, like spinach.  In fact, a better analogy might the one of growing poppies to produce opium.

Part of the absolutism is the refusal to acknowledge any of the dangers associated with marijuana or the concessions I made about the dangers of alcohol.  In my column I compared smoking marijuana to drinking alcohol, which I think is apt, depending on the strain of marijuana.  Both are used socially, both are relaxants, and both can be addictive.  The debate centers on legality.

Although marijuana is illegal, the punishment for its possession (alone) usually is very light. What legalization proponents (including William F. Buckley) don’t say is that many of those perpetrators serving prison sentences supposedly for “drug possession” have pled their cases down or are repeat offenders with long histories of other crimes, including violent crime.  So in effect they are not serving sentences for smoking a joint in their living rooms as many imply.

Those who do smoke in their homes (without any punishment I might add) say, “Look, I smoke every day and pull in six figures and pay my taxes, don’t beat my wife or kids, etc., etc.” That may be true.  It is also true for functioning alcoholics.

Again, the similarities between the two substances, and I revert back to an argument based on tradition and specifically our Judeo-Christian heritage.  I openly—and non-relativistically—assert that it is a heritage that is superior to all others.  I base my arguments on this premise.

The fact that I am accused of being a theocrat for simply invoking our cultural heritage and advocating for its values again points to an absolutism on the part of these libertarians, and I think, implicitly a rejection of the Judeo-Christian foundations of our culture.  Many of my detractors are absolutely hostile to the mere mention of the Bible or of why we should pay attention to it.

Such an attitude I think springs from an ignorance of history and a lack of appreciation for the roots of our culture, the very culture that supported the founding of this republic.  Like T.S. Eliot in “The Idea of a Christian Society,” I make the argument on a broad philosophical basis.  You can be an atheist and still appreciate the virtues of our Christian heritage.  If you are philosophically honest, you will see that, as a worldview, Christianity was the first that admitted that “all men are created equal.”  I came upon this fact, not in reading some religious tract, but an article by Francis Fukuyama in the liberal magazine the Atlantic.

In order to invoke the founding fathers, one needs to understand the cultural tradition they drew from.  They read deeply and drew upon the rich traditions of Western thought.  They agree with George Washington as he says in his Farewell Address, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. . . .  Who that is a sincere friend [to our form of government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”  I believe I was pointing beyond the isolated use of marijuana to the foundations.

Barry Goldwater in The Conscience of a Majority bemoaned the decay of morality, of the acceptance of the once “unthinkable” that “eventually could bring about the destruction of our free society”:  “The ‘unthinkable’ says automatically that because of ‘changing times’ we not only must alter our old methods of living, but we also must change all of our previously held attitudes.  Thus, you find a vicious and growing attack directed at every tradition, every standard and belief—no matter how fundamental it might be to an ordered society of freedom and justice. . .”  I think we see this now with libertarian arguments that argue along lines divorced from tradition, standard, and belief.  The “unthinkable” also concerns those behaviors that on their face have no harmful effects.  One of these might be public nudity.  I can imagine an “unthinkable” scene, of nude citizens in the public square smoking joints.  It’s funny, but logically consistent with the arguments of those who would legalize marijuana and all other non-harmful behaviors. Our culture since Goldwater’s writing has accepted many, many other once “unthinkable” acts, usually to the detriment of our society.

For arguments based on practical reasons, I encourage readers to look up the comments of my friend Tina Trent who blogs on crime.  She gives many good reasons why legalization won’t lower crime rates.  In my column, I also linked an article that indicated that the legalization of marijuana in certain states has given young people the idea that it is safe.  It is not safe.  It has serious health effects.  It is addictive.  I personally know people who smoke it every day.  They started young.  One started after being in a motorcycle accident and used it for pain.  These are people who are supporting themselves, true.  But they are people who are operating way below capacity, who have lost the ability to think logically or to care enough to argue logically.  Their emotional relationships are shallow.  They have lost initiative and that fighting spirit that defends the idea of liberty.

Why now put the imprimatur of legality on a substance that does this?

One of the things that sets our culture above others is that we are a nation of laws—reasonable laws.  And laws for possession of small amounts of marijuana need to remain at the misdemeanor level.  This does not take away our freedom to use drugs in a legitimate manner, nor detract from our other freedoms.

The culture warriors of the 1960s used a multi-pronged approach to effecting a change in “consciousness.”  One of those was to present the “unthinkable” in libertarian terms.  Nudity, sex out in the open, orgies, destruction of public places, desecration of art—why not?  The acceptance of all kinds of behavior, including some extremely self-destructive behavior, by my students worries me.  They cannot articulate reasons why some behaviors—even those that seemingly affect only individuals—should be condemned.  They cannot articulate reasons why our culture is superior to others.

Conservatives need to focus on educating young people who have been kept in ignorance about how our culture and country have provided them the freedoms they now enjoy. As Goldwater said in 1964, there is no freedom without law and order. The debate about drug laws entails larger questions about cultural values.  To argue in an arid, absolutist manner is to indicate a certain disregard for our heritage.

As I see it, this debate really is about more than whether or not you smoke a joint in your living room—which for all practical purposes neither I nor the cop on the street much cares about.  What I do care about is this one more capitulation in the Culture Wars.

David Swindle:

Mary Grabar's response in our debate about drug criminalization has clarified her opposition to marijuana legalization in an important way. She concluded her essay with these words:

As I see it, this debate really is about more than whether or not you smoke a joint in your living room—which for all practical purposes neither I nor the cop on the street much cares about.  What I do care about is this one more capitulation in the Culture Wars.

Mary is certainly intelligent and reasonable enough to acknowledge what is plainly obvious: marijuana is not functionally different in its effects than alcohol or tobacco and we should not be too concerned with adults using it responsibly in their own homes.

So why keep it banned? Why all the numerous arguments highlighting marijuana's negative qualities? Simple: because in Mary's estimation to allow legalization would be to grant a victory to the counterculture. And, well, we as conservatives can't have that. Or can we?

Here's an argument that might be rather counter-intuitive: conservatism and counterculture are in no way mutually exclusive. I've blogged about this before here in talking about author Douglas Rushkoff's brand of Robert Anton Wilson-influenced libertarian counterculture:

"Wait a second," some people must be thinking. "Isn't the counterculture the same as the Left?"

Sort of. Not really. No. The Left as defined by Discover the Networks and the Freedom Center is a political movement. The "counterculture" is a cultural movement. The two frequently overlap (they certainly did in the '60s when both had their heyday), and countercultural thinkers and leftist thinkers are often friendly. (Hence, Rushkoff frequently recruits feminist author Naomi Wolf to write blurbs for his books.) Counterculturalists are more about shifting the culture, not the political system. They promote their art, music, film, drugs, sexuality, spirituality, and philosophical ideas while often passing on the political sphere.

A good example of the difference is in the person of David Horowitz. In the '60s he was a leftist, not a counterculturalist. He argued for a Marxist political system while basically adopting the cultural norms (nuclear family, no dope smoking) of American society.

Is the Conservative Movement a political movement or a cultural movement? Is it about conserving the political ideas of the founders or the Judeo-Christian, "traditional" culture of the founders? (This is hardly an either/or decision.) And if it is about preserving a traditional culture, is it going to use the tyrannical power of government to do it? (And spend billions of taxpayer dollars?)

My answers to these questions should be obvious. I'm concerned about defeating the Left's political machinations. And that should be the primary concern of conservatives. It's not pot-smoking counterculturalists that are sending Guantanamo detainees to Illinois. The push for socialized medicine comes from leftists. (Harry Reid and Howard Dean are in no way "counterculture.") And the political fight against these problems can only be won by a functioning coalition comprised of many peoples with many cultures who are united by a common political understanding of the role of government -- the one I articulated in my previous post.

Mary wrote in her rebuttal that,

We lost the last election because we lost the culture war.

No we didn't. John McCain lost to Barack Obama because of politics, not culture. Obama was a more exciting candidate who ran a much more effective campaign. It's that simple.

A conservatism that can win is one which understands itself and defines itself as a political movement, not a cultural one. To do otherwise is to begin to destroy a functioning coalition that has been vital to defending America since Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ronald Reagan brought it together in the 20th century. Conservatism must take the same approach to culture as the Constitution does -- neutrality. Such an attitude worked for the document which has guided and protected our country for centuries and it will work for the Movement who has the same objective.

Mary Grabar is invited to respond further if she so chooses.