The Democratic Way of Prohibition

How the party of pot smokers ended up standing in the way of pharmacological freedom


The most illuminating ride-along I've ever gone on was a three-hour bus tour of South Los Angeles with City Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents the area that before two deadly riots was known as South-Central L.A. and Watts.

Parks is not exactly my favorite public official. He draws a combined taxpayer-funded salary/pension of more than $400,000 a year, and as L.A.'s police chief in the 1990s he stonewalled corruption probes while alienating good officers with petty penalties for minor internal violations. But Parks is far more willing than his colleagues on the city council to deviate from the local Democratic consensus on issues from rent control to eminent domain. Above all, he's a blunt-spoken fellow, providing a rare warts-and-all glimpse into a certain governing mind-set.

On this day in 2007, cruising down the boulevards near the epicenter of the riots that followed the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, Parks' mind was on the kinds of establishments he was sick of seeing in his neighborhoods. "Auto-related business, auto-related business, fried chicken restaurant, liquor store, fast-food restaurant," he and his top aides would say, pointing out the window as we passed them by. If only those Del Tacos could be replaced by sit-down family restaurants, those used-tire lots by Whole Foods outlets, the area could finally begin making an economic comeback.

Parks' solution: Ban the "blight." As a first step, by a unanimous vote in the summer of 2008, the L.A. City Council prohibited the construction or expansion of fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. You could still build a McDonald's in nearby (and more prosperous) Lakewood. But creating burger-flipping opportunities near Florence and Normandie was deemed bad for the neighborhood.

It's important to point out that the political class supporting the fast food moratorium does not, as a rule, dislike poor minorities. Parks is black, the mayor of L.A. is Latino, and community activists in favor of the ban actually used the phrase "food apartheid" to describe the state of affairs before mostly white central planners zoned away consumer choice for half a million mostly nonwhite residents. They genuinely believe that punishing some of the few businesses willing to serve troubled neighborhoods is a necessary precondition to bringing in the commercial chains they prefer, such as Trader Joe's, Mimi's, or Starbucks (though never Walmart).

Two pathologies stand out here. One is the belief that prosperity is sourced at the stroke of a government pen, whether it's prohibiting one type of commerce or doling out favors to another. In my years of observing L.A. politics, the only government official I recall ever making the argument that good things can happen if you limit rather than expand government interference was 1990s Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, and he was apt to lard that talk with new subsidy schemes for preferred industries. For his efforts Riordan was commonly portrayed by a mostly hostile press and city council as just a few stages of evolution removed from a Nazi. When the New Left icon Tom Hayden ran against him for mayor in 1997, one of his campaign slogans was "Riordan is a racist."

The second pathology is the disconnect between political in-group identity and the real-world impact of policies. Activists who have singled out L.A.'s historic black neighborhood for a fried chicken ban are motivated by a desire to combat racism, strange as that may look on first and second glance. When those Whole Foods outlets turn out to be just as unattainable as a local economic rebound, there won't be a moment's re-evaluation. They will still be flattering themselves for fighting racists, still trying to prohibit their way to prosperity.

With this backdrop, it is no accident that Los Angeles has become the nation's capital for both commercial marijuana and the bewilderingly herky-jerky efforts to rein it in, the subject of this month's cover story and of a recent video at reason.tv (reason.tv/potwars). The article and the video both illustrate, to dizzying effect, how a political culture in which nearly every relevant player agrees that Californians should be allowed to use marijuana as medicine without fear of arrest can lead to business-shuttering regulations and violent police raids. Call it the Democratic way of prohibition.

Here we have an extremely Democratic city in a strongly Democratic state, where the population at this point favors outright legalization of marijuana, plus a Democratic president whose Justice Department has said it will stop prosecuting people for growing, supplying, or possessing medical marijuana as long as they are complying with state law. How in the world can this combination lead to a fresh crackdown?

Easily. Too many Californians believe that your personal freedom ends once you walk out your front door (or more accurately, the front door of your apartment, since the political class is forever coming up with new restrictions on what owners can do with their houses and businesses). Economic freedoms are treated with outright suspicion, particularly if they are not somehow managed by a local governing authority.

Two details in Brian Doherty's article illustrate the point. Anti-dispensary activist Michael Larsen—who supports medical marijuana, naturally—talks about restricting its sale in his neighborhood the same way he talks about zoning away auto repair shops. Eat your heart out, Bernard Parks! And when Doherty asks supporters of the crackdown why the medical marijuana business has to be regulated, they typically explain that before, "it was unregulated."

Freedom can be a terrifying thing, especially when it's exercised by other people. One of the prohibitionist's most effective tactics is to portray people who enjoy the activity he wants to ban as dangerous degenerates. Popular activities or personal pastimes that seem inscrutable from the outside often elicit the kind of anxious suspicion described in a song by the famous Angeleno Tom Waits: "What's he building in there?"

But by bringing pot into the open, L.A.'s helter-skelter experimentation with limited medical marijuana freedom may ultimately foster tolerance far beyond the field of pain relief. When pot was strictly in the shadows, it was possible to maintain with some plausibility that legalizing the stuff would lead to widespread addiction, community-wide torpor, and dodgy dealers preying on gullible teens. But we now have several years of data to the contrary. There's a dispensary every other block in some neighborhoods, and the social fabric is not yet torn.

Like the gay marriage debate, which changed irrevocably once America saw two sweet grandmother-aged ladies kissing and crying on San Francisco's courthouse steps, semi-legalization in California has put the lie to pot demonization and emboldened people to say out loud what most have known all along: It's just a plant that makes you giggle and eat junk food. It's nothing to get hung up about, let alone a reason to continue waging a drug war that has ruined so many lives and eroded so many freedoms.

The near future of Democratic prohibition, which will be playing out in medical marijuana states from coast to coast, is hard to predict. Hostility toward economic freedom is pervasive, and one can only hope that people will begin noticing that you can't truly have personal freedom until you can buy and sell what you want, too.

But as with gay marriage, the long view is clear: We will have freedom, unapologetic freedom, in our lifetimes. Future generations will look back at the details of this interim and scratch their heads, but they will recognize that from the cloud of L.A.'s pot confusion came the insight to finally, mercifully, legalize weed.  r

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.