Don't call it reefer madness (National Post May 28, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Because libertarians never achieve political power, they have the luxury of advancing passionately held, logically consistent theories that will never be tested in real life.

Conservatives, who do accede to political power from time to time, must temper theories -- especially those that make physical appetites their touchstone -- with a view to their consequences for society. From hard experience, conservatives understand there is many a slip between the cup of theoretical individual liberties and the lip of desirable social outcomes.

Like most liberals and many other conservatives, I don't believe possession or use of marijuana should be criminalized. But unlike most liberals and all libertarians, I don't think it should be legalized.

The Post's editorial board takes the libertarian view, agreeing it "makes sense" to legalize what is a pleasure to many and in their view harmful to no one.

In fact, marijuana does great harm to our most socially vulnerable youth: aboriginals, the mentally fragile and the socially dysfunctional. Cheaper, readily available cannabis will escalate consumption and exacerbate well-documented harms in that population.

In my column last week, I urged the board to reconsider their stance in the light of increasingly persuasive research that links today's much stronger strains of cannabis with -- amongst other worrying effects --psychosis in young people genetically predisposed to, or already in the throes of schizophrenia.

By "reconsider" I meant the board should take time to inquire more deeply into recent scientific findings that have prompted sober second thoughts in other countries.

Instead the very next day the Post published a mock-the-messenger editorial, into which more "reconsidering" was apparently lavished on its (admittedly) witty headline -- "Barbara Kay vs. Mary Jane"-- than on respectful attention to the message.

Casting me as an uptight, prohibition-era Miss Grundy and gleefully dandling their presumed "gotcha," the board asked if I intended to "don [my] bonnet" and "take up the hatchet" against the familiar harms of legal tobacco and alcohol. To respond to their challenge: Tobacco and marijuana are apples, alcohol is oranges.

If I'd been around when Europeans were introduced to tobacco four centuries ago, and had known then that even moderate long-term smoking caused lung cancer, why yes, I would have argued against its legalization. Alas, that rusted open barn door can't be easily closed.

As for alcohol, no. Smoking in any form is harmful. Wine and spirits in moderation confer health benefits. The great majority of social drinkers should not be penalized for the dysfunction of the few.

From antiquity, the loving cultivation of vineyards wherever possible, and the enjoyment of wine and spirits has been a positive feature of all Western societies. Prohibition failed because its imposition through a transiently ascendant wave of religious asceticism was inconsistent with democracy and a society in which alcohol generally played a benign role.

And because alcohol in moderation is culturally aligned with enhanced fellowship and animated human interaction, it is therefore a communal as well as an individual good. Conversely, the purpose of marijuana is the alteration of consciousness, an end achieved by a process that thrives in solitude and mental torpor.

As well, the greatly augmented proportions of the psychoactive ingredient in today's cannabis belie the now-anachronistic defence of cannabis' gentle effects. As one reader wrote me: "One high-potency marijuana reefer is worse on driving reflexes than a whole bottle of wine from my experience. Much worse."

Unlike alcohol or tobacco, the marijuana-rights lobby is linked to an ideology and a larger agenda, in support of which a sympathetic leftist media overlooks their obligation to cover legitimate health concerns. Thus, even though the Post board's capitulation to the romance of cannabis may spring from lofty libertarian principles, it unwittingly furthers the nihilist agenda of cynical all-drug legalizers who are exploiting marijuana's relatively innocent image as their Trojan horse.

One mirthless irony that theory-fixated libertarians fail to consider is that legalizing marijuana would simply divert invested criminals' efforts into marketing stronger, illegal marijuana to minors.

Another is that for accountability and liability purposes, legalization will embroil government, insurance companies, schools and medicare in such a tortuous maze of regulatory and enforcement interference with their privacy that potheads -- and libertarians -- will yearn for the paradoxical simplicity of illegal, but unencumbered access.

I have failed in my mission with the Post's editorial board. We must henceforth agree to disagree on marijuana legalization, but I do hope this column, as well as those I write on related issues in the future will appeal to readers of common sense.