How to Argue for Pot Legalization in the Face of Prohibition Supporters

As more and more people start paying attention to the results of marijuana legalization in various states—whether for medical or recreational use—the nature of the argument in its favor is changing.

This is in part because of changes in the support for maintaining prohibition, and more precisely because of changes in what prohibition means. Understanding these changes is crucial to maintaining and increasing the pace and scope of ending prohibition throughout the United States.

One of the most profound changes in the national debate over prohibition is that its supporters are now on the defensive.

The best argument for legalization is to expose the bankruptcy—intellectual and financial—of any and all arguments in favor of prohibition. There is no justification for maintaining the status quo, and this is one of the primary reasons public support for legalization has been growing.

Another major factor has to do with demographics. The younger generation that supports legalization is growing and the older generation that opposes it is shrinking, meaning that more and more voters are rejecting the arguments in favor of prohibition.

There are now roughly three camps of prohibition supporters:

The Old Guard

hese folks believe—and it is a matter of belief—that marijuana is a dangerous and evil drug. They will embrace any story, report or anecdote that confirms their belief as proof and validation. The logic of their position is that because marijuana is dangerous it should be illegal, regardless of the consequences.

The Hold the Line Gang

These folks belong to the Old Guard but take a pragmatic view of modern science and public opinion. They concede that marijuana has medical use, and they concede that people should not spend time in jail for marijuana possession. But they still believe that marijuana is otherwise dangerous and evil; therefore it should remain against the law.

The logic of their position is that the law is a tool to teach people right from wrong, and that the law must send a signal that marijuana use is wrong. They argue that people who are arrested should be compelled into drug treatment programs rather than go to jail.

The Things Could be Worse Crowd

These folks belong to the Hold the Line Gang, but are even more realistic about science and public opinion. They concede the need for medical access and that people should not go to jail. The defining characteristic of this group is that they believe that marijuana legalization will lead to increased use, and because of this legalization should be opposed.

The classic argument for marijuana reform has been directed at the Old Guard. In short, this group has been discredited over time as science has disproven their scare tactics and reefer madness claims. In the face of scientific challenges, the most effective argument against the Old Guard has been that it is unjust for people to go to jail because they use marijuana.

The classic argument, though, left open a vulnerability that the Hold the Line Gang has exploited for the last several decades—the decriminalization trap. Basically, this amounts to neutralizing the reform argument by reducing penalties and sentencing policies for possession of small amounts of marijuana, while maintaining its criminalized status.

Indeed, in many of the states with marijuana decriminalization, pot possession has remained a criminal offense in which jail time has been replaced by a fine. In other words, the response to this classic argument is simply: “Okay, we’ll take people’s money rather than lock them up for a while.” In fact, this is a better deal for the criminal justice system—it decreases costs and increases revenue.

The strategy of the Hold the Line Gang has been to accommodate and neutralize the arguments of marijuana reform advocates, making concessions about enforcement and sentencing, while maintaining the overall criminal law framework.

Fines for possession? Sure. Allowing some medical use? Sure. Ending criminal sanctions? No way. This approach has kept the public debate focused on penalties rather than legalization for decades.

Obviously, the nature of public debate has changed, and in hindsight, the accommodation strategy could never be sustained indefinitely. Eventually the incremental changes it accommodated produced a steady erosion of public support for prohibition, particularly as reform advocates innovated and mastered new strategies and tactics.

The most prominent opponents of legalization today are the Things Could be Worse Crowd.

They are willing to concede everything the Hold the Line Gang has conceded and more. This crowd wants to look reasonable, educated, modern and moderate. They reject the shrill positions and rhetoric of the Old Guard. They acknowledge the injustices perpetuated by the Hold the Line Gang. But they are concerned, very concerned.

Legalizing marijuana would be a mistake, they argue, because it will result in increased use and the emergence of “Big Marijuana,” a corporate monolith that will market, advertise and promote marijuana use. This crowd is a double threat to legalization because they have folks working both sides of the issue. One faction opposes legalization. The other faction argues that if marijuana is legalized, the prices need to be kept artificially high to discourage use.

The classic argument against prohibition remains strong and effective.

However, the changing nature of opposition to reform requires corresponding changes in the arguments in favor or legalization. The failure of prohibition to control access to marijuana and the social cost of the resulting black market have been part of the anti-prohibition argument for decades. These issues require increased emphasis and greater elaboration as legalization advocates respond to the Things Could be Worse Crowd.

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