Employees make cuts from mother marijuana plants to grow clones at the PharmaCielo Ltd. facility in Rionegro, Colombia. (Photographer: Eduardo Leal/Bloomberg)

Legalize Pot, But Don’t Normalize It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- New York City is reportedly starting a task force to prepare for the full legalization of recreational marijuana, with the mayor now saying that it’s likely to occur “in the near future.” But has the American experiment with pot legalization gone too far? For all my libertarian upbringing, I am starting to take umbrage at a situation where marijuana is sold openly on some streets, “medical” prescriptions in California are ridiculously easy to get, and too many city sidewalks are full of that unmistakable smell. (Hello, San Francisco and Venice Beach!)

To be clear, my fundamental moral view is that no one should ever go to prison for ingesting marijuana or for selling it to others, minors aside. Individuals have a right to do what they wish with their own bodies, provided they are not aggressing on the comparable rights of others. That logic holds for marijuana, and I have been greatly heartened that American opinion has shifted against sending people to prison for marijuana use. It’s discriminatory, and a poor use of scarce prison resources.

That said, I think it is the proper province of government to regulate the use of public spaces in ways that encourage order and utility. Private shopping malls won’t let you walk through the halls snorting heroin or smoking marijuana, and there is nothing outrageous about that decision. The property owners have decided that they want a particular kind of experience and image for their venue, and they regulate its use and access accordingly. Municipal governments should make and enforce comparable decisions.

Cities and towns already face these trade-offs when it comes to zoning. Even if you believe, as I do, that most zoning regulations are far too restrictive, it’s legitimate for a local government to decide that a waste dump, an auto junkyard or a strip club cannot simply set up shop anywhere in a city, hang out a sign and attract attention. We ought to treat marijuana the same way.

I propose that cities and suburbs restrict the sale and usage of marijuana to the same areas we use for garbage disposal and other “zoned out of sight” enterprises. We needn’t throw anyone in jail: If people or businesses violate these strictures, keep hitting them with the equivalent of parking tickets or injunctions, much as you would for an out-of-place repair shop.

It should be possible to visit Colorado without knowing that marijuana is legal there. If someone is determined to ingest it, they can either drive to an industrial zone or order it online, and smoke it at home or up away in the mountains.

You might wonder why we should be so worried about public marijuana use. To put it bluntly, I see intelligence as one of the ultimate scarcities when it comes to making the world a better place, and smoking marijuana does not make people smarter. Even if you think there is no long-term damage, right after smoking a person is less able to perform most IQ-intensive tasks (with improvisational jazz as a possible exception). By having city streets filled with pot, pot stores and the odor of pot, we are sending a signal that our society isn’t so oriented toward the intellect or bourgeois values. Even if that signal is reflecting a good bit of truth, it would be better not to acknowledge it too openly, just as most advocates of legalized prostitution don’t want to allow brothels on Main Street.

Keeping marijuana out of sight will also limit the risk of backlash against its basic legality.

Marijuana advocates commonly counter that the drug is no worse or more dangerous than alcohol. I agree, but you nonetheless might still believe that alcohol has acquired too prominent a place in the American public sphere, even if that state of affairs is no longer reversible. There is no reason we should compound that mistake with marijuana.

Given that we’ve had decades of a (mostly failed) “War on Drugs,” it seems odd to call drug issues neglected or underaddressed. Yet I think they are. The opioid epidemic took this nation by surprise, and solutions are coming slowly. Alcohol is hardly debated as a political issue, unlike in the early 20th century.

One of the biggest dangers we face today is that new technology will bring innovations to harmful and addictive drugs more quickly than to beneficial pharmaceuticals. The chemical laboratory is a lot more potent than in times past, and much of the stuff doesn’t have to be carried across any border. Social attitudes will have to do a lot of the work of the law.

As drug problems spread, I like to think we will be humane enough to keep offenders out of prison, but also prudent enough to have laid down some rules.

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