Scary Medical Marijuana

Mark Kleiman has a post up: Why I always put “medical marijuana” in scare quotes. It’s a masterpiece of muddled confusion.

He accepts in the first sentence that “marijuana has medical value.” That should be enough right there to stop him from using scare quotes. After all, he is a public policy writer and has to know that using the scare quotes is, in essence, a strong implication that he doesn’t believe marijuana has medical value. He essentially admits that his scare quotes are a lie.

What appears to bother him is the ickiness of the system. He admits that politics is a messy business (“laws and sausages”) and agrees that the outcome was good. But he doesn’t like the fact that so many people, who don’t really need marijuana for the strict medical purposes intended in the law, are buying their recreational pot from nice clean medical marijuana sources instead of from the usual street criminals. And what really sets him off is that they seem to be… flaunting it.

Of course, this also fits in Kleiman’s ongoing narrative of being disgusted with both sides (criminalizers and legalizers). And sure, there are people who think that legalizers’ interest in medical marijuana is disingenuous, since their main purpose is recreational legalization.

This is, perhaps then, a good time to remind folks about the most glaring difference between those who have been pushing for legalization, and those who try to defend criminalization.

Yes, many legalizers came to the issue without much knowledge about the medical benefits of marijuana. And yes, they discovered that medical marijuana was also good for the legalization movement. They realized that the mass public would be less likely to be scared by a product that was used by grandmothers with cancer, which could defang the decades of government propaganda. And so they learned more about medical marijuana. And, lo and behold, they discovered it was really true. And they met inspirational people whose illness was transformed by using medical marijuana. And so they became legalizers who also cared about medical marijuana. It was not incompatible at all. Sure, they were “using” medical marijuana as a foot in the door for legalization, but only because that was the best way to also insure that sick people would be able to get their medicine. [Note: I do not give permission to quote the previous sentence without including the entire sentence.] If you talked to most legalizers, they would prefer that marijuana was legalized for everyone, but, failing that, would at least want to make sure that sick people could be helped.

Contrast this with the criminalizers. They also realized that medical marijuana was a foot in the door to legalization, and would neutralize many of the scary lies they had told about it. And so they opposed medical marijuana, despite knowing that it could help people. They were willing to force sick people to be hurt, and even arrest them for trying to get better, all in order to protect a failed political position. Yes, they used sick people. It’s despicable, and there’s no way that you can legitimately compare the two sides’ tactics as being even close to morally equivalent.

This dynamic exists across the spectrum in the legalization vs. criminalization debate.

Someone may come to the legalization discussion originally because they like to smoke pot, and they typed “Why is marijuana illegal?” into a search engine.

At the time, they may not have had any particular knowledge about the connections of race and the drug war. But then they learn about how extraordinarily racist the drug war has been, and because they are real people, this bothers them, and the more they learn, the more they are determined that something must be done about it. In this way, legalization became more urgent to them, because now there was another reason for doing it.

And there is a whole laundry list of reasons why legalizers become more involved and passionate about it the more they learn (and sure, many of them still like to smoke pot and would like to do so legally). Here are just a few of those reasons:

  • Medical value to sick people
  • Letting farmers grow hemp as another crop if they wish
  • Nutritional/energy/fiber values, etc. of the hemp plant
  • Racial impact of the drug war
  • Corruption (and militarization) of law enforcement
  • Civil Liberties
  • People dying in Mexico
  • Disfunctional foreign policy
  • Environmental destruction
  • Black-market profits, particularly for violent criminals
  • Unregulated quality


And on each of these issues, legalizers are on the right side. In other words, in each situation, legalization is connected to a better outcome for that issue, whereas criminalization results in a worse outcome.

This is, I think, part of the reason that some people are perplexed by what they may see as an unseemly rabid doggedness on the part of legalizers. After all, why are they so passionate about just wanting to smoke some pot? We care about a whole lot more than that.

So where does that leave Mark Kleiman? After all, he doesn’t like either side, really. He is for a specific limited approach to legalizing marijuana, but [in the larger picture of the entire class of recreational drugs] he is also in favor of maintaining prohibition in order to insure swift penalties for those who are unable to control their drug use.

I think it would be safe to say that he favors the use of government to prevent people from doing what he firmly believes is not in their best interest (and he believes that government can actually do that).

Hey, it’s a cause. Not one I agree with, but he’s at least consistent about that.

And I’ll take my list above, for which I have become passionate through the years of study and learning on the issues, over his cause any day.

[Note: Post updated to reflect unclear writing on my part. The overall bedrock principles of legalization to me hold true regardless of the specific drug (although each of course is different in the way it should be regulated), so I sometimes forget to clarify when I'm talking just about marijuana and when I'm talking about the bigger picture.]

Further update: Mark clarifies his position for the record:

“No, that’s not right. Even for the drugs I’d still like to see prohibited, I’m no longer a believer in user sanctions except for people convicted of non-drug crimes. HOPE and related programs are for property and violent felons, not for drug possessors.”

That’s a good clarification to know.

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