The old saying goes: Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. Most of law is a question of where the public nose starts. If you wanted to, say, release radioactive substances in our city, it would certainly be illegal, but what kind of illegal would depend on how and what kind and on your intent. If you’re a factory owner wanting to release it into the air via a smokestack or into the water via an effluent pipe, that would fall under environmental regulations; you might hope to avoid fines by contributing to the campaign of the right lawmaker, and making sure the press didn’t cover protest actions against you by buying a lot of advertising from local media businesses. If, however, you wanted to release the same substances in a bomb, no one in the political world or the press corps would be your friend, for fear of appearing soft on terrorism.
So what does that have to do with marijuana? Only that how the public and the law perceives what you do changes with how your intent is perceived. It was virtually impossible to promote legalization of marijuana when the issue brought to mind images of tie-dye-shirt-wearing hippies, and those who opposed legalization were defending the upstanding citizens’ way of life. Now that those same former hippie individuals are elderly great-grandmothers dying of cancer, wanting a little toke to help them get through chemo, those who oppose legalization are seen as heartless.
Where the public nose starts is more complicated than determining who gets harmed by either banning or allowing something. Our perceptions count too.
In the case of the idea of ending marijuana prohibition, let’s consider an actual, physical nose: mine. Scientists consider marijuana nontoxic, meaning an overdose death is impossible. But it’s not safe for me. I’m deathly allergic to it.
I remember clearly the first time I encountered marijuana. I was in my college room, and I started having an allergic reaction to something, with the usual eye-watering hayfever type symptoms, and heavy asthmatic wheezing. My assigned college roommate pulled something sealed in a plastic packet out of a drawer and asked me if that was what I was reacting to. She opened the package and my throat closed down. I choked out “yes” and then couldn’t get any more air through my throat. With the help of an opened window, an asthma inhaler, and my roommate taking the package off to store in someone else’s apartment, I managed to survive, as I’ve somehow managed to survive all the other asthma and allergy attacks I’ve had in my life. But I always live with the knowledge that my next asthma attack could be my last. Asthma kills. So why am I, of all people, in favor of legalizing marijuana?
Because I don’t believe that my life is more important than your freedom.
If marijuana were deadly to everyone, not just me, like radioactive materials are, then it would be clear that the public nose will be put out of joint, pardon the pun, if the deadly substance were legal. But it’s only dangerous to me, and a few other people with respiratory disabilities. And millions of lives have been ruined or ended by the drug war. What a waste.
It’s the law that’s deadly to other people. Gang violence, border violence from drug cartels, generations growing up without their fathers. Prisons full of people whose lives are wasted by being caught in the drug war to become even more disenfranchised black men like their fathers and grandfathers before them. And to see what their lives could have been like if they had not been caught toking up, we need look no farther than the White House. Our President smoked marijuana in his youth. Regardless of whether you agree with his politics, surely we can all agree that his great potential would have been wasted if he had been caught at it and tossed in jail. Our society throws away lives just like his every day on our unfair drug war. And we are bankrupting our society to do it, spending money on prisons that could have been used for education or mental health treatment or any of a number of public goods, or left in your pocket for you to pay for your housing and food.
Millions harmed by prohibition versus one person—me—that could be harmed by being exposed to the substance in a public place. It’s clear the public nose is more harmed by anti-marijuana laws than by marijuana.
OK, then, what if marijuana were legal? Would it ever be safe for me to leave my house again?
Assuming that marijuana cigarettes would be treated just like any other cigarettes—sold in smoke shops and kept behind chain link fence in warehouse stores, smoked in bars and casinos and on private property but not in the post office or school or any other public buildings—I will survive. How to find a place to work where I can be safe is not your problem. Yes, your tax money pays for the Nevada Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation, the public agency that finds jobs for people with disabilities. I found my current job on my own, but if I needed their services, since I already need a total clean air environment to protect myself from tobacco cigarettes, Lysol and other cleaning chemicals, chemical perfumes, and a variety of other airborne assaults, adding one more thing to the list of things I have to avoid in a workplace would probably not add anything to the tax bill for helping me find a job. From a tax perspective, even if there were a dozen people just like me, helping a few more differently abled people find suitable work environments would be a drop in the bucket compared to Nevada spending $500 million less per year on prisons plus being able to tax marijuana. Society comes out ahead. The public nose is less punched if we end prohibition.
This equation only works, however, if we balance the needs of the disabled few against the wants of the smoking many, as we do with regular cigarettes. We must also balance the needs of other special populations such as children against the wants of the many. When marijuana prohibition ends, there must be reasonable restrictions about where exactly one can smoke, just as there are for regular cigarettes. As long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, people who smoke it will still not smoke it in city hall, even if it’s legal under Nevada law. Sooner or later the momentum of legalization must inevitably sweep away the federal restrictions, too, and on that day the state marijuana laws will be paramount. We must take thought for that day.
State laws in states with legal marijuana, or with legal medical marijuana only such as present day Nevada, generally still consider it illegal to drive a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana, just as it is illegal to drive under the influence of other legal drugs such as alcohol and prescription painkillers. In the case of driving, it is appropriate to treat marijuana like other legal drugs. In the case of marijuana taken by smoking, it is appropriate to treat it like other the smoke emitting drug, tobacco. Confining marijuana smoking to the places where tobacco smoking is allowed would result in a world in which smokers are free to smoke without fear of prison while providing a world where I still have the freedom to go to the dentist’s office without fear of death.
Because ending marijuana prohibition is one of the rallying cries of the liberty movement, which generally hates regulations on principle, proponents of legalization tend not to articulate regulations for legal marijuana beyond acknowledging that DUI laws must stay, and conceding that marijuana could be taxed. But the issue of where exactly one may smoke is an issue that must be settled at the same time as ending prohibition, because the legalization process usually happens through state ballot initiative, which is difficult to change once enacted.
The drug war is a waste of money and lives. It perpetuates cycles of poverty and violence. Sooner or later it will end, and on that day, states that have already enacted reasonable regulations will be prepared. Let Nevada enact common sense marijuana laws now.