Drug Policy

'A Very Heated Agreement'


The Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation has finally posted video (scroll down a bit for the link) from January's medical marijuana "debate" between former Republican congressman Bob Barr and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann. Knowing that Barr, a hard-line drug warrior when he served in Congress, has since joined the Libertarian Party and signed on as a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, you may not be surprised to hear that he believes states should be free to set their own policies regarding the medical use of marijuana. Still, the video is worth a look as evidence of Barr's continuing ideological evolution.

Barr drew a distinction between the wisdom of permitting medical (or recreational) use of marijuana and the proper role of state governments in making that determination, likening the issue to gay marriage. Just as one can oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment (as Barr does) without endorsing gay marriage, he said, one can oppose federal attempts to override state medical marijuana policies without endorsing pot smoking. He criticized the Supreme Court's approval of such meddling in Gonzales v. Raich, saying it relied on a ridiculously elastic definition of interstate commerce. "It's an issue of states' rights," he said. "It's an issue of personal liberty. I hope…we can continue the process of moving our country back to the position where the dissent in the Raich case tells us we should have been."

Barr's position did not leave Nadelmann much to disagree with. "It's barely a debate," Nadelmann said after Barr's opening statement. "It's almost a discussion." He agreed that states should be "laboratories of democracy," that the balance of power has swung much too far toward the center, and that the federal government is overbearing in many areas. But he said he was "torn on the broader issue of federal [power] and states' rights," recalling (predictably) that defenders of Jim Crow claimed the "states' rights" banner. He did not draw a distinction between federal laws against private racial discrimination, which do depend on a broad reading of the Commerce Clause, and federal action to stop state-sponsored discrimination, which is grounded in the Civil War amendments.

"Ultimately," Nadelmann said, "this issue for me is not primarily about states' rights. The issue for me is primarily about human rights." He said states should not be intefering with medical marijuana use either. "If the federal government wanted to move ahead on this issue," he said, "I would be delighted with that as well." Moving beyond the narrow issue of medical marijuana, he said (as he often does) that people should not be punished simply because of the substances they choose to put in their bodies, whether for medical or recreational purposes.

Barr, by contrast, dodged a question about where he stands on state laws against drug use. But he questioned marijuana's classification as a Schedule I drug under federal law, and he noted that "the power to control these substances" is a "gateway power" that leads to bigger government and escalating violations of civil liberties, saying the war on drugs resembles the war on terrorism in that respect. (How odd that Barr was so quick to see the threat to civil liberties posed by the fight against terrorism, which is aimed at protecting people from aggression, but so slow to see the threat to civil liberties posed by the war on drugs, which is aimed at protecting people from their own bad choices.)

"I almost feel like I'm debating myself," Nadelmann said toward the end, to which Barr replied, "I hope you win." The moderator called it "a very heated agreement."

NEXT: Reagan's Principles

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  1. He's getting there!

  2. But is there really a there to get to? Where is there? There is where. Where there. Werethere! Ha! Like a werewolf!

  3. Dude, I'm scared.

  4. Gateway power? That's great, why didn't I think of that?

  5. Dude, I'm so stoned I watched the first five minutes of the Iran video higher on the page. Huh huh...

  6. I'm down with Bob Barr's position on marijuana.

    The world is on it's ass.

    One quibble, while I think prohibition is THE Libertarian issue. (We are so right, everyone else is so wrong. It's very important. It will win people over. yadda yadda yadda) I'm fine with a federalist approach. What we have for alcohol would suit me well enough for pot.

    On the other hand, not so fast on gay marriage. If the State is going to license marriage (which I don't think they have the right to do. I'd prefer marriage registration) equal protection requires it to give it to teh gays too. Anything less is straight up (hee) oppression.

  7. Dammit, I can keep watching because the Daily Show is coming on in like 20 minutes...

  8. P.S. is the trademark too pretentious?

  9. No. Maybe even necessary.

  10. My lawyers will be in touch...

  11. Pretentious. It's even crappier than my alias.

  12. Getting off the pot for a second: issues like this might be more clearly argued if we stop using the phrase "states' rights." Libertarians, in particular, should know better -- states have powers, people have rights. I'm not hairspltting, "states' rights" cleverly frames our political thinking in the wrong direction.

  13. karl,
    Good point. But now you have the problem of finding a phrase to replace 'states rights' with.

    The best I can do is 'undelegated powers' in reference to the tenth amendment. It has the attribute of, if not resurrecting, at least eulogizing the tenth. But it's a bit awkward and not immediately clear.

  14. From the video, it appears to me Bob Barr has gone way beyond the medical marijuna issue and now advocates that the federal government should neither prohibit nor regulate controlled substances. While he may not advocate legalization at the state level, he apparently views it's within the states' right to legalize if they so chose. To me, that's a radical shift on his part and put's him well within the libertarian mainstream on this issue.

  15. Kaligula,
    Yeah. It's frightening, and kind of exciting. I still think he needs to confess and atone for his sins. Also, he has clearly demarcated his position as "drugs are bad, freedom is good, freedom trumps drugs like paper covers rock". What we need is a respectable spokesman who's willing to say "drugs are good"

  16. Why do we need a spokesman to say "drugs are good?" Libertarians are for individual liberty, not for subjective value judgements about drugs, SUVs, chocolate milk, or romance novels, NASCAR or whatever other vocational, religious or recreational activities one may peacefully endulge in.

  17. Creech,
    Yes, excellent point. I'm just frustrated with loosing ground on prohibition. The "drugs are bad" mentality is ubiquitous. You can't even start a conversation. They just shut you down and won't even listen. And the evils ascribed to drugs have been getting more and more outrageous and the press and public just swallow them whole. I think it would go a long way if there was someone being heard saying, "this is all bullshit". There have actually been quite a few voices saying "we are losing the war on drugs, we should legalize because we'd be more effective combating them that way". That rhetoric hasn't made a dent. I don't know maybe parents will never be able to have a sane discussion about drugs no matter how you frame it.

    I was watching Dick Army on CATOs archives recently. He was going on about how the GOP has lost it's way. How he is a libertarian through and through but thinks that the only way to be effective is to work with the Republicans. But then in the Q&A he said something like "Drugs are a problem for me. I see the libertarian argument, but because I don't like drugs I will never lift a finger to help legalize them". That's the kind of thing that drives me to drink!

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