The incoherence of Obama’s position on marijuana
U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent interview in the New Yorker was surprisingly interesting. While some have noted his disapproval towards a (hypothetical) son playing pro football out of concussion concerns, the more remarkable comments concern marijuana: he says it’s “not very different from…cigarettes” and “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol.” He did not come out in favour of legalisation, however, and this makes his views (and, to a certain extent, the position of the executive branch charged with carrying out federal law) incoherent – by which I mean, his various positions taken together are inconsistent. Obama may well ‘evolve’ further as he did with gay marriage, but any such evolution will likely come too late in his term to lead to an effective, permanent change in policy.
The incoherence of Obama’s views is relatively straightforward. He equates marijuana with cigarettes and even concedes it is less dangerous than alcohol. Yet, the sale and possession of alcohol and cigarettes is not proscribed, while the sale and possession of marijuana is. Consuming any of the three may well be a bad habit, not something that kids should be doing, and so forth, but simply being a bad habit is not grounds for prohibition and one could always regulate sales to youths as is done with alcohol and cigarettes. The only apparent reason to ban marijuana would be that it is very bad for people, going beyond a mere bad habit like watching too much TV. But if the only reason to ban something is because allowing it is bad for people (a safe approximate presumption in the regulation of voluntarily-purchased products), marijuana is not worse than alcohol and cigarettes (which Obama concedes), and prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes is unjustified (which Obama presumably agrees with), then prohibition of marijuana would be appear to be unjustified as well – yet Obama inconsistently holds that prohibition of marijuana is justified.
Perhaps Obama is a secret prohibitionist. Perhaps he favours the prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes on moral grounds, but (as the experiment with prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s proved) thinks the side-effects (especially the rise in organised crime) would be too great. I doubt this is his actual position, given he is quite willing (unlike his onetime challenger Mitt Romney, a teetotaller due to religious conviction) to be photographed imbibing and has not publicly supported prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes. But even if he is actually for the prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes, this cannot make his position coherent because prohibition of marijuana has similarly problematic consequences – including, as he himself says, “radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities.” He is surely correct when he says ending marijuana prohibition is not a panacea that will single-handedly solve a whole slew of American society’s problems, but that’s close to a straw man argument – proponents of legalisation just need to show that it would solve more problems than it creates (i.e., be overall beneficial to society, even if that benefit is relatively small). Given the problems of prohibition of which Obama is evidently aware, what could then outweigh them to justify maintaining it?
In the interview, Obama’s only actual justification for continuing to support prohibition of marijuana appears to be a slippery slope argument: “If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?” In essence, the argument is that marijuana should be banned not because it is very bad for you, but because it will lead to the legalisation of other things that are very bad for you. Perhaps slippery slope arguments are sometimes compelling (e.g., when you’re actually on a slippery slope), but this is not one of those times. One could consistently push for legalisation of marijuana while being against the sale and possession of small quantities of, say, cocaine on the grounds that a) consumption of larger quantities of cocaine is substantially more harmful than cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana and b) allowing only small quantities would make the overall market impossible to regulate effectively – people would just buy little packets from multiple vendors to accumulate the same overall quantity. Also, there is no reason to think that, politically, legalisation of marijuana will inevitably lead to legalisation of other drugs – the two can be kept legally distinct. Moreover, the slippery slope reasoning would imply that repealing prohibition of alcohol was a mistake on the grounds that it opened the door to present arguments against prohibition of marijuana. Again, unless Obama is a secret prohibitionist, he is being inconsistent.
Coherence is an important trait for policymakers (and policy) to possess. Whatever the moral truths turn out to be, we can expect them to be internally consistent – and we should want the law to track morality. Of course, correcting an inconsistency could potentially make matters worse rather than better, if one ‘corrects’ a position that’s actually correct in order to make it consistent with an incorrect position. One option in the present case is, after all, for Obama to come out in favour of prohibition of cigarettes and alcohol (which few would accept is the right course of action). However, not only would it be politically easier to legalise marijuana than ban alcohol and cigarettes (and I expect Obama would himself pick all three to be legal over all being illegal), but we should have some confidence in people’s general abilities to make the right corrections when revising inconsistent positions. This might seem overly naïve and optimistic, yet we rely on such confidence when undertaking any moral deliberation – including over whether marijuana should be legalised – and it’s only fair to extend that optimism to others. In any event, Obama’s incoherence is troubling insofar as it will likely lead to more of the unjust incarcerations he is evidently so concerned with.