Viewpoint: Grass and Guns and Thee and Me


Q: What have New Hampshire and Alaska in common—besides statehood and snow? A: Both recently moved to enhance the possibility of individual decision-making. New Hampshire's legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment allowing folks to bear arms in defense of their families, possessions, and New Hampshire, which amendment will surely get the hearty endorsement of the crusty Granite State voters.

Meanwhile, days before Attorney General Levi indicated an inclination toward removing criminal penalties for use of dat ole debbil grass, Alaska's Supreme Court unanimously ruled precisely that: Alaskans may now keep marijuana for private use in their homes (most likely also including their yards), which spells grass gardens from Juneau to Nome for every happy Puff the Magic Dragon with a spare seed. The court declared that "mere scientific doubts" about the medical effects of grass don't justify Big Brother's intrusions into the home, a remarkable concession in this age of aggravated busy-bodyism. In due course, Alaska's laws against public possession and sale will also likely be voided. And that will be a unique first for the nation, of interest to more than just the 28 people and nine billion caribou and polar bears in our northernmost state.

At first glance, the two state actions seem divergent.

Alaska, as everybody knows, churns out pols like Wally Hickel and "Mike" Gravel and Ernest Gruening, avatars of advanced liberalism; while all New Hampshire reads the conservative Manchester Union Leader and elects men like Governor Meldrim Thomson, who may well mount a rightward challenge to Gerald R. Whatshisname in his state's primary.

Gun control is one of the holy causes of the trendy left, while the right—Barry Goldwater, the libertarians, and some National Review types excepted—consider marijuana legislation or decriminalization an invitation to Satan to set up shop in America. The two states have acted in their predictable images; the surprise would have been an Alaska amendment approving private gun use or a New Hampshire march down the legalized pot path.

Yet there is this binding thread: both actions empower citizens to make their own decisions on crucial matters. Neither has said: you must possess marijuana, or you must have a gun to protect yourself, only that you may if you wish. That is called, if memory serves, freedom of choice.

Problems abound; they always do. Some innocent will surely take a quick trip to the Hereafter when someone else mistakenly shoots him, whereupon Ralph Nader will mount another crusade. And some kid is bound to rip off mommy's marijuana supply and do something silly or dangerous or lethal, which will by morning inspire a thousand shrieks amongst the ice drifts for retreat from Alaska's new pot ruling.

There's no way out of that kind of bind: every liberty is abused by someone, and everything benignly intended will, at some point along the way, backfire.

Still, consider the meaning of these two moves were they to spread across the land, perhaps conjoining in, oh, New York. The liberals would have to grant, if they cared (for a change) to be consistent, that if it's A Good Thing to allow people the right to smoke themselves into whatever state people sometimes smoke themselves into, it is likewise A Good Thing to let citizens protect themselves, their loved ones, and their goodies against criminals. The conservatives would have to concede the same point, from the other direction. Or am I perhaps committing the sin of optimism?

Public debate over both grass and guns tends to bog down in considerations of extreme cases (kill, kill; zonk out, zonk out), of health (as if we didn't know quite well that booze and nicotine are killers, and legal), and of social engineering—the "let us make mankind over in the image of Mr. Clean" routine. Usually neglected is the bottom line: will the individual be free to do with his life as he chooses, or won't he? In their particular fashions, New Hampshire and Alaska have ruled in the affirmative. What a surprise, were citizens nationwide to realize the connection between these actions and, well, act accordingly; which is to say: in the libertarian direction.

David Brudnoy teaches at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. Dr. Brudnoy's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray Rothbard and Tibor Machan.