Professor, economist, author, and political commentator Robert Reich is best known for being President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997. Before that he held positions in the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and was a professor at Harvard. After leaving the Labor Department he taught at Brandeis University, ran for governor of Massachusetts (he lost), and was a member of President-elect Barack Obama’s economic transition advisory board. Since 2006, he has been the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Along the way, he wrote fifteen books.
But more important than any of that, Reich is a vocal critic of federal marijuana laws.
Reich is decidedly left-wing on economic issues. He favors expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and financing the expansion with higher taxes on “the rich.” He is pro-union. He opposes deregulation. He favors increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. He supports a universal basic income and a wealth tax to address the crisis of wealth inequality.
But even though Reich is a liberal in every sense of the word, conservatives should be paying attention to what he says about marijuana legalization. And so should liberals, since, after all, drug freedom is not a tenet of liberalism.
The federal prohibition on marijuana has been a disaster. For decades, millions of Americans have been locked up and billions of dollars have been wasted. It’s also deepened racial and economic inequality.
We must end this nonsensical prohibition.
The facts are staggering. In 2017, more Americans were arrested for marijuana possession than for murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery combined. That’s one marijuana arrest every minute.
The costs associated with enforcing this ban — including arrests, court costs, and incarceration — reach nearly $14 billion a year.
Prohibition also hurts the economy in terms of lost wages. And Americans with criminal records have a harder time finding a job and getting the education they need.
That marijuana prohibition is a colossal waste of money with costs that greatly exceed any of its supposed benefits is reason enough to legalize marijuana. But Reich doesn’t stop there. He also maintains that “legalizing, taxing, and regulating” marijuana “is good for the economy and creates jobs.” He believes that marijuana should be taxed by state and local governments the way cigarettes and alcohol are. Reich points to states such as Colorado and Washington that tax and regulate marijuana and generate “millions of dollars for health care, education, and other public investments.” As a libertarian, I certainly oppose taxes and regulations on marijuana, just as I oppose taxes and regulations on cigarettes and alcohol. But, like it or not, the fact remains that every state that has legalized marijuana has also taxed and regulated it — and reaped a windfall.
But Reich isn’t finished yet. Marijuana legalization is “more than an economic issue” because “it’s also a matter of racial justice and equality.” Reich recounts the racist origins of the federal prohibition on marijuana and asserts that “black and brown Americans are still much more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white Americans, despite using marijuana at similar rates.” He also points out that “more states are taking action to reform their laws and move toward legalization” and “support for marijuana legalization has surged in recent years, with two-thirds of Americans now in favor of it,” although I take issue with his statement that “even a majority of Republicans are in support.” “It’s time to legalize marijuana,” concludes Reich.
Even though thirty-three states have legalized the medical use of marijuana, and ten states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and at least twenty states and more than fifty localities in a dozen states have either fully or partially decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the federal government still considers the growing, distributing, buying, selling, possessing, or smoking of marijuana to be a violation of federal law. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801) with “a high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and “a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.” The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has the authority to prohibit marijuana possession and use for any and all purposes. Under federal law, “possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction.” Subsequent convictions have higher penalties, including life in prison, and under certain circumstances, one can get the death penalty. Half of the inmates in federal prisons are there for drug offenses.
So Reich is certainly correct: It’s time to legalize marijuana.
Yet, there are some extremely important things that Robert Reich failed to say about marijuana legalization. And they are, in fact, much more important than anything he says in his article.
Reich has a law degree. He should know that the Constitution says absolutely nothing about marijuana or any other drug. He should know that the Constitution gives no authority to the federal government to have a Controlled Substances Act, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a drug czar, an Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), or a Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. He should know that the federal government has not only no authority under the Constitution to prohibit marijuana possession, but also that it has no authority whatsoever to have anything to do with marijuana.
So why didn’t Reich say so? They are things that any liberal, progressive, socialist, or Democrat could say. And they are also things that any conservative or Republican could say, and especially those who claim to revere the Constitution and say that the Constitution should be followed.
But that’s not all that Reich failed to say about marijuana legalization.
He failed to say that it is not the proper role of government to be concerned with the medical or recreational habits of Americans.
He failed to say that it is not the business of government bureaucrats to interfere with what Americans want to put in their mouths, noses, veins, or lungs.
He failed to say that it is an illegitimate purpose of government to regulate what Americans desire to eat, drink, smoke, inhale, or inject.
He failed to say that people should be able to do anything that’s peaceful as long as they don’t infringe the personal or property rights of others and are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
He failed to say that every crime should have a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property.
He failed to say that no American should ever be arrested, fined, or imprisoned for possessing a plant his government doesn’t approve of.
He failed to say that the government’s war on marijuana is a war on personal freedom, private property, personal responsibility, individual liberty, personal and financial privacy, and the free market.
But at least he said what he did about marijuana legalization. That is more than most conservatives would ever say.