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Conservatives Should Stop Crying Pot!

The more conservatives freak out about pot legalization in Colorado and Washington, the more likely voters will be to tune them out in the future.

“Wolf!” cried the young, foolish shepherd boy in the famous story. The first couple of times, there were no wolves. He just made it up. So people stopped paying attention and rallying to save the flock. When the wolves finally came, people no longer believed his cries. They just ignored him like the noise from an annoying, oversensitive car alarm. Consequently, the wolves descended. The boy’s sheep were slaughtered. In some versions of the story, he wound up on the dinner menu as well.

“Do not lie,” is the lesson moralists have wanted us to take from Aesop’s story, but there are other lessons. Do not let your imagination get the better of you, is one. Sometimes the wolves are real, is another. The boy and his sheep and the wolves are apropos because this is the first year of the legal sale of marijuana in these United States since 1937, in Colorado and my own Washington state.

And I fear that conservatives are reflexively crying “pot!” without thinking through what that might mean. Former George W. Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote that the “freedom to destroy oneself with hard drugs” doesn’t just “degrade human nature but also damage[s] and undermine[s] families and communities and ultimately deprive[s] the nation of competent, self-governing citizens.”

That’s a debatable though entirely plausible point that ought to be taken seriously, but then he veered sharply into self-parody. Gerson went on to apply the warning to pot as well. “By what governing theory,” he asked, “did the citizens of Colorado — surveying the challenges of global economic competition, educational mediocrity and unhealthy lifestyles — decide that the answer is the proliferation of stoners?”

One might respond to his paean to technocratic managerialism by quoting from an obscure old stoner tract, drafted on hemp it turns out: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, man, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, so get off of my cloud.”

Former George H.W. Bush drug czar and Book of Virtues author Bill Bennett, writing with his radio producer Christopher Beach, predictably damned liberals for their “hypocrisy” in backing pot legalization while going after trans-fats, cigarettes and Big Gulps. Why, he fumed in Politico, “Marijuana is the most widely used and abused drug in the country.” Cue the predictable partisan swipe: “To write off pot as no more dangerous than alcohol, as the president remarked, is to minimize alcohol’s destructiveness and belittle pot’s very real and harmful effects.”

Doing yeomen’s work to cement the modern GOP’s vote-winning image as the party of War and Prohibition, Bennett banged on about the health risks associated with pot. As if Americans didn’t already know that extended, significant pot use can make you dumb (“permafried”) and hungry (“the munchies”), or that potheads are more likely to be extremely paranoid, or that it’s not a great idea to drive while stoned. We learned these things through collective experience, not from the science that Bennett very selectively touts.

Experience has taught us, and science has confirmed, that pot is not a very dangerous drug. There are simply too many people who have tried pot repeatedly and not gotten badly burned by it. Users don’t overdose on marijuana. By and large, they become somewhat mellow and dumbly philosophical. Think Keanu Reeves writ large. That can make potheads annoying and irresponsible, but so can a lot of things — not all of which are yet prohibited by law. According to polling, a majority of Americans have come around to the conclusion that pot usage ought not make people criminals. Two states have voted to allow a legal, regulated marijuana market, with more likely to follow.

Old Republican drug warriors are horrified of this prospect and want to do anything they can to head it off before the joint gets passed. John Walters, George W. Bush’s drug czar, published a piece in the conservative Weekly Standard warning that in allowing legalization in Colorado and Washington to go forward because pot is not terribly dangerous, President Obama was “cutting the legs out from under every parent and schoolteacher and clergyman across the country who is trying to steer kids away from illegal drugs.”

Walters issued a challenge: “Why don’t the dedicated public servants at such places as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration — those who know the truth, have dedicated their professional lives to protecting Americans from substance abuse, and even risk their lives daily — speak up?”

At a private meeting of the nation’s sheriffs, DEA chief Michele Leonhart did just that. The results were accidentally comical. One sheriff who was at that meeting told the Boston Herald that Leonhard “said she felt the administration didn’t understand the science enough to make those statements. [Leonhard] was particularly frustrated with the fact that…the White House participated in a softball game with a pro-legalization group. … But she said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they’d flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4.”

Leonhart’s words are easy to mock. (They flew a flag over the Capitol made of a substance that George Washington grew and that the Declaration of Independence was initially drafted upon! How very depressing!) Yet her complaints point to a serious problem with how the federal government still regards pot. According to Walters, “79 percent of America’s 23.9 million [self-reported] illegal drug users in 2012 used marijuana.” Going forward, if the government, with conservative prodding, decides to treat the “illegal drug problem” as one large undifferentiated thing, it might as well throw in the towel on the whole anti-drug effort.

Heroin, crack, meth: It is possible that these and other substances used at normal dosages put users in serious peril, degrade human nature, undermine families, and make community and self-government impossible — and should therefore be kept out of the reach of most adults. But to make that claim about pot at this point is just absurd. The more conservatives yell “pot!” in responses to efforts in Colorado and Washington, the more likely voters will be to tune them out in the future — when, say, a new drug called “wolf” comes to market.

Jeremy Lott is editor-at-large of Real Clear Politics.

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