There's a new dynamic to the debate over marijuana prohibition. Patrick Kennedy and Kevin Sabet recently launched Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) in response to the growing debate over legalizing marijuana. They claim to take a third approach in marijuana policy, supporting neither the drug war status quo nor legalization. They want the government to screen marijuana users and put them in treatment if necessary, and they are against legal regulations and sales. Their position seems indistinguishable from supporting drug courts. David Frum, journalist and former George Bush speech writer sits on the board of Project SAM and recently wrote a CNN piece on why marijuana should remain illegal.
Frum’s argument is nothing less than fascinating. Unlike traditional opposition to marijuana legalization, Frum does not claim that marijuana use is inherently harmful. He acknowledges that most marijuana use is not problematic and most marijuana users are not dependent. He has the balanced view that the risks are limited to its effects on a developing brain and if the user is predisposed to certain mental illnesses. This is refreshing for a prohibitionist, and makes his argument the most interesting justification of prohibition in recent history.
He argues that learning about the risk factors of marijuana and making decisions accordingly is too much for Americans to handle. We need prohibition because Americans are only capable of simple, easy choices like "just say no." It almost feels like his article on CNN was meant to be a private memo, not intended to be read by the Americans he's putting down. He writes:
It's possible to imagine a marijuana rule that tries to respond precisely to such risk factors as happen to be known by the current state of science. Such a rule might say: "You shouldn't use marijuana until you are over 25, or after your brain has ceased to develop, whichever comes first. You shouldn't use marijuana if you are predisposed to certain mental illnesses...When we write social rules, we always need to consider: Who are we writing rules for? Some people can cope with complexity. Others need clarity... "Just say no" is an easy rule to follow.What makes Frum's political advocacy so interesting is his blatant low expectations of Americans. Usually when people advocate a policy solution they tie in American values meant to inspire. Regardless of whether it's liberal or conservative, building support for policy generally involves giving reasons why such a policy maximizes our collective or individual strengths. Frum curiously takes the opposite approach, arguing that we need to keep prohibition intact because Americans are incapable of tackling complex problems.
His argument isn't really about the drug itself, it's about how Americans can only make decisions that are totally straightforward. His position on drug policy is decidedly paternalistic. He compares the value of prohibition to what he finds works for parenting his own children.
[A]s a parent of three, two exiting adolescence and one entering, I've found that the argument that makes the biggest impression is: "Marijuana is illegal. Stay away." I think many other parents have found the same thing.Maybe I have a rose-colored glasses vision of how children should be raised, like teaching them why something is a bad decision and how to make choices based on something more than whether or not it's against the law. Is anyone saying we can skip trying to teach teenagers why bullying or cheating is wrong because "It's illegal, don't do it" works well enough?
The merits of different parenting styles aside, Frum is entitled to raise his children how he sees fit. The problem is that he feels entitled to apply his parenting style to all Americans. Underage marijuana use would remain illegal if it is legalized for adults, so it's not like we're denying parents the "It's illegal. Stay away" tactic he finds works well. Rather, he's saying in no uncertain terms that adults are like teens when it comes to marijuana, they need simple rules to follow because they can't handle comprehending risk factors. After all, as he writes, Americans can't handle anything more complex than simple rules like "Just Say No."
I appreciate that Frum wrote this piece and explained why he supports prohibition because it gets to the heart of where the debate stands today. It's not about whether marijuana is universally safe or universally harmful, which is an outdated controversy that has dominated the discussion for too long. I agree with Frum that the risk factors are not totally simple and straightforward, like most things Americans are confronted with on a daily basis.
I'm glad Frum wrote this piece because it highlights what I see as the fundamental differences of opinion on the role of public policy when it comes to marijuana. Frum believes limiting risk factors and allowing individual agency are mutually exclusive.
Today's defense of prohibition is rooted in the belief that due to our own incompetency, we are incapable of collectively analyzing marijuana and coming up with policies that represent the risk factors. Unsurprisingly, a policy supported by a belief in our inability to understand a problem severely limits our ability to address said problem. Instead, it locks us in the past, under the illusion that banning decisions is a sustainable solution. Prohibition is another way of giving up on our potential to address drug problems.
David Frum is right, the question of marijuana legalization is not about whether it is risk-free or not. The question is if it's worthwhile to understand complex problems and if it's important for individuals to be involved in understanding the risks behind the choices they make.