New York Times columnist Ross Douthat thinks “legalizing marijuana is a big mistake.” His argument, which draws heavily on a longer Substack essay by the Manhattan Institute’s Charles Fain Lehman, is unabashedly consequentialist, purporting to weigh the collective benefits of repealing prohibition against the costs. It therefore will not persuade anyone who believes, as a matter of principle, that people should be free to decide for themselves what goes into their bodies.
Douthat recognizes that his case against legalization “will not convince readers who come in with stringently libertarian presuppositions.” Lehman, a self-described “teenage libertarian” who has thought better of that position now that he is in his 20s, likewise makes no attempt to argue that the government is morally justified in arresting and punishing people for peaceful conduct that violates no one’s rights. They nevertheless make some valid points about the challenges of legalization while demonstrating the pitfalls of a utilitarian analysis that ignores the value of individual freedom and the injustice of restricting it to protect people from themselves.
Douthat and Lehman are right that legalization advocates, who at this point include roughly two-thirds of American adults, sometimes exaggerate its impact on criminal justice. All drug offenders combined “account for just 16.7 percent” of people in state and federal prisons, Lehman notes, and perhaps one-tenth of those drug war prisoners (based on an estimate by Fordham law professor John Pfaff) were convicted of marijuana offenses. People arrested for violating pot prohibition usually are not charged with production or distribution and typically do not spend much, if any, time behind bars.
Still, those arrests are not without consequences. In addition to the indignity, embarrassment, inconvenience, legal costs, and penalties they impose, the long-term consequences of a misdemeanor record include barriers to employment, housing, and education. Those burdens are bigger and more extensive than Douthat and Lehman are willing to acknowledge.