Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.
Among the results of last month's elections was a startling cultural development: two states, Colorado and Washington, became the first to legalize the sale of marijuana for any purpose to adults over 21. This coincides with national polls that show increasing support for marijuana legalization. Yet on this issue, conservatives and liberals alike have balked at defending individual rights and states' rights.
Since 1996, when California allowed the medicinal use of marijuana, 17 more states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. A Washington Post-ABC News poll three years ago found overwhelming support for legalizing medical marijuana use: 81 percent were in favor. More recent CBS News and Quinnipiac polls have shown Americans almost evenly split on legalizing recreational sale of marijuana to adults, with supporters ahead by 3 to 4 percentage points. In 1969, only 16 percent favored legalization.
While the use of cannabis has been illegal since the 1930s (when the name "marijuana" was popularized by opponents to capitalize on anti-Mexican stereotypes), the ban -- like alcohol prohibition before it -- can be seen as the ultimate in intrusive government. If the state's going to tell us there are substances we're not allowed to ingest or inhale, there had better be a very compelling reason to justify such intrusion.
Few would join libertarian purists in advocating the legalization of hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin; but more and more Americans agree that marijuana is no more harmful than other legal products such as alcohol and tobacco. Among those under 30, as many as 70 percent endorse full legalization of marijuana.
Yet even the use of marijuana for medical reasons -- such as nausea and pain control, supported by eloquent testimony from patients -- has run into dogged opposition from the federal government. While the Obama administration initially moved to end the Bush administration's raids on medical marijuana distributors in states where such dispensaries were legal (though they run afoul of federal laws), it has reversed course toward more aggressive enforcement.
On the state level, too, even limited legalization continues to encounter strong opposition -- in part because it would conflict with federal law. In New York, the Democrat-controlled State Assembly has voted three times -- most recently in June -- to legalize medical marijuana; the Republican-dominated Senate has blocked the bill. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has straddled the fence, backing the decriminalization of possession in small amounts but also saying that medical marijuana's risks outweigh the benefits.
You would think that both conservatives and liberals would have good reasons to support legalization. Conservatives have long championed small government and advocated leaving most policy issues to the states; even if one believes that governments have a legitimate interest in restricting marijuana sale and consumption, there is no reason to regulate it on a national level. Liberals have long championed the right of adult men and women to make their own lifestyle choices regardless of social disapproval, as long as their actions cause no direct harm to others.
The status quo is defended by powerful groups from evangelical Christians to law enforcement officials. Yet legislating an increasingly unpopular morality undercuts respect for both morality and law -- and enforcing marijuana prohibition diverts resources that could be used to fight real crime.
In our polarized environment, efforts by either political party to move toward a more rational marijuana policy would likely be painted as pro-drug by the other side. So far, only mavericks -- such as retiring Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson -- have been willing to take a pro-liberty stance on this issue. For more mainstream politicians to follow in their footsteps would be risky, but it would also show true leadership.