The No. 1 Argument for Cannabis Legalization

By David Jenison on April 29, 2019

I love to debate the merits of cannabis legalization. It is an issue of freedom, health and wellness that we should celebrate every day, not just on 4/20, though the cannabis holiday can be a time to renew our collective commitment to the cause. Knowing what to say about cannabis can help ensure the legalization wave continues to crest in the direction of liberty and justice.

"The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave." - Thomas Jefferson

Legalization debates often center on comparative risk assessments. The most common comparison involves alcohol, which remains legal despite being 114 times more dangerous than cannabis. Or for those who support prohibition on the basis of road safety, texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk or stoned driving, yet we don't put people in jail for sending texts (like we do smoking cannabis) in the privacy of their own homes. Or as Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) judge Francis Young argued in defense of cannabis, "Eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response... [while] it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death," yet there is no potato prohibition.

These types of arguments highlight the hypocrisy of prohibition, but they're ultimately just a defense against claims of cannabis-related risk, and studies suggest prohibition support is actually driven by morality, not perceived risk. We need a stronger argument for legalization.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies." - C.S. Lewis

What then is the No. 1 reason for legalizing cannabis? For the United States, the answer is simple: It's the democratic will of the people.

The Center for Civic Education defines "constitutional democracy" as majority rule with protections for minorities, due process and basic individual rights like life, liberty and property. How then can America call itself a constitutional democracy when a majority of its citizens want to expand freedom to include cannabis use yet its representative government refuses to do so?

And to be clear, we're not talking about a slim majority, as the following polls attest:

  • Legalization support reached a record-high 66 percent in a 2018 Gallup poll
  • A CBS poll this week found 65-percent support for legalization 
  • Legalization support hit 61 percent in the recent General Social Survey
  • Pew Research saw similar legalization support at 62 percent
  • Legalization support reached 63 percent in a 2018 Quinnipiac poll
  • Quinnipiac registered 89 percent support for legalizing medical cannabis
  • 76 percent of Ivy League students support full legalization in a College Pulse survey
  • FOX News and Rasmussen both registered majority support at 59 and 54 percent, respectively
  • A 2017 Pew poll of police officers found more support for legalization than prohibition
  • Nearly 70 percent of the police officers in the same poll would legalize medical cannabis
  • 59 percent of medical professionals support legalization in a 2018 Medscape poll
  • The same poll said 79 percent support medical cannabis and 22 percent consume cannabis

If the legislative branch did represent the will of the people, cannabis legalization would have enough support to overcome a Senate filibuster, while the Gallup poll suggests there could be enough support to override a presidential veto and/or pass a constitutional amendment. If a legalization vote was added to the November 2020 ballot, it would easily pass. The bipartisan STATES Act that allows states to set their own cannabis laws would almost certainly become law if given a vote in Congress. Even a full legalization bill could potentially pass.

Instead, under the pretense of safety, the federal government is denying liberty for cannabis consumers and suppressing the democratic will of the people. At a minimum, Congress should at least allow a vote.

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” - Benjamin Franklin

Majority rule has its limits. For example, it should never infringe on individual rights as it has in the past by allowing for discrimination based on race, gender and sexual preference. That is why any act of prohibition that limits freedom and liberty—regardless of its level of support—should require a much higher bar to pass. In the case of cannabis, minority support for a prohibition that was built on lies and maintained through exaggerated safety concerns did not even deserve to pass a low bar, making it a stain on American history.

By contrast, majority support for cannabis legalization is about the expansion of freedom and liberty. Common-sense regulations would be put in place to minimize risk, but Americans would be able to enjoy cannabis at home or in designated social areas without risking arrest or worse for doing so. That is the freedom that the majority of Americans are calling for and that the government is suppressing.

We either believe in the Constitution or we don't. We either believe in democracy or we don't. We either believe in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or we don't. A majority of "we the people" across all age groups supports legalization, and the federal government betrays these American values every second it denies the people the liberty it desires.

(And for the record, three of the last four U.S. presidents smoked cannabis, and it's the one who didn't who seems to have all the brain damage.)

“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” - Nelson Mandela

Just as Syrian refugees defied ISIS by growing cannabis, many Americans have defied their country's cannabis oppression for decades. In the past few years alone, federal drug war tactics have included forced vaginal searches, killing a non-violent grower with a bulldozer, sentencing a 14-year-old to five years for possession, giving a pain-stricken 76-year-old disabled vet life in prison without the possibility of parole for medical cannabis, and trying to put a sixth-grade honor student in jail for possessing a maple tree leaf that merely looked like cannabis.

Until the government honors the democratic call for more freedom, millions of Americans will continue to defy prohibition and pay the price with incarceration, fines, legal fees, job loss and asset seizure. Federal law might make them outlaws, but they've made 4/20 their Independence Day.

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