Why Smoking Pot Is Not a Crime or a 'Public Health Problem'



During his recent interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, President Obama falsely claimed that reclassifying marijuana would require an act of Congress, whereupon Tapper asked whether he would favor that change. But Obama did not want to answer that question, so instead he said this:

I stand by my belief—based, I think, on the scientific evidence—that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is, and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge. But as I said in the interview, my concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and in some cases with a racial disparity. I think that is a problem.

Over the long term, what I believe is if we can deal with some of the criminal penalty issues, then we can really tackle what is a problem not only for marijuana but also alcohol, also cigarettes, also harder drugs, and that is try to make sure that our kids don't get into these habits in the first place. And the incarceration model that we've taken, particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set.

Here Obama conflates drug use with drug abuse, adults with children, and penalties for marijuana possession with penalties for marijuana productiion and distribution. Since each of those distinctions is an important prerequisite for an intelligent conversation about drug policy, let's consider them one at a time.

Obama correctly observes that marijuana, "just like alcohol" (and every other drug or source of pleasure), "is subject to abuse." That implies, contrary to what the Drug Enforcement Administration claims, that not all marijuana use is abuse. As I argue in my book Saying Yes, equating use with abuse is the sort of definition that obliterates meaning. Like alcohol, marijuana can be used in a moderate, controlled, responsible way, a way that does not harm the user or anyone else. To the contrary, that kind of use is life-enhancing: It brings people pleasure, helps them relax, enhances enjoyment of other experiences, and so on—all without hurting anyone.

Yet in his recent interview with The New Yorker, the same one in which he conceded that marijuana is safer than alcohol, Obama called pot smoking "a bad habit and a vice." In the CNN interview, he called it a "public health problem." Nonsense. Marijuana consumption not only is not, properly speaking, a public health problem (keeping in mind the distinction between risks people voluntarily accept and risks imposed on them by others); it is not even, by and large, a problem. In the vast majority of cases, it is a harmless pleasure and therefore a good habit, not "a bad habit and a vice." The same goes for drinking—although, as Obama notes, the possibility of harm is greater with alcohol.

The ultimate aim of treating drug use as a public health problem, Obama says, is to "make sure that our kids don't get into these habits in the first place." But concerns about underage access should not become an excuse for treating adults like children. Grownups have a right to "get into these habits" if they want to, which means they should not be punished for doing so. In fact, it is hard to see why they should even be criticized for doing so, provided their habits are temperate.

Although I reject the idea that marijuana is a "public health problem," I recognize that such rhetoric often implies a less punitive approach, as Obama's concern about "criminal penalty issues" illustrates. The problem is that he mistakenly implies marijuana users face "very heavy criminal penalties" and does not address marijuana growers or sellers at all. Don't misunderstand me: It is absurd and unjust that police arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans for marijuana possession every year. There is no reason why people who have violated no one's rights should be subjected to the humiliation, inconvenience, and expense of an arrest, not to mention the lasting consequences of a criminal conviction. That injustice is especially disturbing given how racially skewed pot busts are: The ACLU calculates that blacks are about four times as likely to be arrested for possession as whites, even though they are no more likely to smoke pot. 

It is nevertheless incorrect to suggest that many people are serving long prison terms merely for possessing small amounts of marijuana. A drug warrior can respond to Obama's argument that pot smokers should not be subject to "very heavy criminal penalties" with an easy retort: They're not. Meanwhile, the growers and distributors who are subject to such penalties are swept under the rug. That way Obama avoids addressing the moral incoherence of decriminalizing demand but not supply: If actually smoking pot should not be treated as a crime, then why should it be a crime merely to help people smoke pot, let alone a crime that can send you to prison for the rest of your life?

The usual answer to that question treats consumers as victims of predatory suppliers—even when they do not perceive themselves that way, even when they seek out the product, eagerly consume it, and come back for more. (In fact, if you believe that certain chemicals have the power to enslave people who consume them, this eagerness is evidence that drug users cannot control their consumption and must be coerced into abstinence for their own good.) Judging from his musings about the consequences of legalizing marijuana, Obama subscribes to this view of consumers as mindless automatons: 

Those who think legalization is a panacea, I think they have to ask themselves some tough questions too, because if we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher.

First of all, who are these people who "think legalization is a panacea"? I have never met them, and I spend a lot of time talking to drug policy reformers. The activists I have met do not say legalization is a panacea; they say it is better than prohibition. I thought that was the question we were discussing. 

In any event, Obama offers, as a possible reason why legalization might be worse than prohibition, that legalization would allow "big corporations" with big ad budgets to sell marijuana. I know that anti-pot activists like Kevin Sabet think we should all be terrified by that prospect, but it sounds pretty good to me. My life is a lot better in many respects thanks to big corporations with big ad budgets, and if I don't like what they're selling, I can always say no. The scary connotations of "Big Marijuana" are based on a critique of capitalism that denies consumer sovereignty, portraying people as incapable of judging their own interests or resisting come-ons for stuff they don't want. I don't buy it.