Civil Liberties

Doesn't America Deserve a Marijuana Rights Movement That Just Wants to Eliminate Legal Penalties Surrounding Marijuana?

The marijuana movement shouldn't have to be a fight between crony capitalists and public health nannies.


Last week the International Business Times ran a very interesting profile of Dan Riffle, who recently quit his position as federal policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project over his disquieting sense that the movement is becoming too centered on the interests of the businesses trying to make money in a slowly legalizing marijuana industry.

It is a very interesting look at tensions dividing the marijuana legalization movement, which became of big policy importance when voter disquiet derailed an Ohio legalization initiative that would have created a legal cartel to control all pot production. Jacob Sullum reported in detail about the Ohio initiative and why it failed for Reason last month.

The profile made me wish America had a more openly and totally libertarian marijuana movement pushing what is in its simplest and most useful form a very libertarian idea: don't legally punish people solely for the substances they choose to consume for their own pleasure. Leave your desire to make money at others' expense or manage their lives for your pleasure out of it.

Alas, too many people involved in it, as this Riffle profile makes clear, insist "marijuana legalization" has to be about more than that. Riffle, looking askance at the business interests, just wants to lard what should be at best a decriminalization movement with his own concerns, which will themselves risk turning off some activists and voters and, yes, business interests, who the movement still needs to get on his side.

Some excerpts on the extraneous concerns Riffle wants driven from the marijuana legalization movement, and alas the ones he wants added to it:

As Riffle noted in an email to colleagues in early November, the "industry is taking over the legalization movement and I'm not interested in the industry." That same day, MPP announced a new political campaign funded by marijuana industry revenues.

…."I felt for the last few months the industry was kind of dominating the legalization movement's work in general, and MPP's specifically."

Better, apparently, in Riffle's mind that progressivoid "public health" notions dominate it instead:

…..he's concerned that the substance at the center of this particular movement is an intoxicating drug. While that drug might not be as dangerous as say, alcohol or tobacco, there might be societal benefits to limiting access to the product, restricting potency and disincentivizing heavy use – approaches that are likely to clash with for-profit interests. "They might lobby for preferential tax treatment that drives down prices, they might lobby for less regulation," says Riffle. "The industry's goal is to make money, but from a public health perspective, we might have other goals that are at odds with the industry's goal of making money."

The writer, Joel Warner, kind of ignores the implications of Riffle's statements, when he writes:

But that doesn't mean that all of the movement's core values will translate easily as its driving principles shift from civil liberties to business bottom lines. Will there be continued interest in helping nonviolent marijuana offenders erase harsh drug-war convictions from their records? In allowing struggling war veterans and desperately sick kids to obtain not just legal but affordable access to the medical marijuana? In protecting the interests of the small marijuana farmers in places like California's Emerald Triangle whose decades of legally perilous efforts helped launch the marijuana movement in the first place? In ensuring that those who don't necessarily need unfettered access to cannabis – like youth and problem users – are protected from its adverse effects?

Very little of those concerns have to do with the "civil liberties" that Warner blithely assumes is all the non-big-business types care about. Yes, on getting convictions expunged from records, and legalization of any sort will likely help with the possibility of making that happen down the line, even if it isn't bundled with legalization up front.

But "affordable" pot for certain classes, small-business protectionism, and actually continuing some form of effective prohibition for the people the "public health" folk still want to keep prohibited—where is the "civil liberties" in any of that?

"Legalization is inevitable," says Riffle. "But [people] haven't put time into forming an alternative to the corporate model. That is something I'd like to work on… We don't really know what the best policies are, and anyone who says they do is blowing smoke."

Let me suggest a policy for the marijuana movement to advocate strongly: eliminate all criminal penalties for the growing, owning, using, or selling of marijuana. It's a radical idea, but I think maybe America's marijuana "civil liberties" movement can some day be turned around to seeing it's a good idea.