The Marijuana Question

Around (some of) the Political World: Marijuana Legalization

I’m not a strict libertarian or strict conservative. The two camps disagree about marijuana legalization. Whose worldview will play out in the real world?

By Jonathan Silverman

The politics of the cannabis plant are changing fast in America. For me, the legalization of marijuana for the purposes of intoxication is far from a battle cry; the issue, though, is a rallying point for many conservatives and libertarians, two political views that I chose to focus on because I’m not always exactly sure where they disagree.

Along with others at different points on the political spectrum, conservatives and libertarians are closely following the debate over legal pot. A closer look at how these two outlooks envision marijuana policy turned out to be an insightful intellectual sojourn into two very different ways of thinking about the issue.


My research began at r/Libertarian, a Reddit forum presumably frequented by those who are attracted to libertarianism. A thread on the front page shared a news item about a recent move from the California Legislature.


In September, the California Assembly voted to support a federal rescheduling of marijuana from a Schedule I drug. The Joint Resolution from the Senate and the Assembly of the State of California proposes a legal reclassification marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug to make it easier to obtain the drug both medically and commercially. The resolution then “urges the President of the United States to sign such legislation.” 

It just so happens that California is set to begin allowing recreational marijuana sales, becoming the eighth state to do so. Beyond California (and beyond libertarians) marijuana’s appeal is growing; in August, a CBS News poll showed 61% support for legalizing marijuana, the highest percentage ever recorded by the poll, up even from last year.  Libertarians would no doubt be delighted to see that the average citizen’s calculus has shifted in favor of their worldview. But exactly why are they in favor of legalization?

I knew Senator Rand Paul (KY) was at least somewhat of a libertarian. During his Presidential campaign, addressing a libertarian group in New Hampshire, Rand Paul said to applause, “If you work all day long, you don’t have time to do heroin.”  

This formulation speaks to a basic libertarian tenet of trusting individuals to make the right decision themselves. Perhaps they have a point. Reason Magazine, a well-known libertarian publication, cites statistics indicating that despite legalization, teens are not smoking more marijuana. Following Paul’s logic, perhaps young teens today are more likely to play video games, and perhaps young adults are more likely to take up coding, both of which require the sort of fine motor skills that marijuana may impede.  Of course, Rand Paul was talking about heroin, which may be a different story given the extremely addictive properties of opioid substances.


To get a sense of what another side thought, I visited what I knew to be a bastion of conservative thought: The Weekly Standard. A quick article search revealed numerous articles decrying both marijuana legalization and the substance itself.


Many conservatives apparently remain opposed to legalization, and they’re obviously focused more on statistics related to the substance’s effects on users. The first article I clicked on links to a summary of a study that shows marijuana-related emergency room visits trending upwards since Colorado began sales of legal marijuana in 2014.

Conservatives also point to other harmful potential effects: links between schizophrenia and adolescent marijuana use and lower IQ scores, among others. Of course, such links between marijuana and behavior are susceptible to selection bias.

How They’re Different

Whereas the libertarian arguments trust people to make the right decision themselves, conservatives encourage society to make a generally good decision for everybody. 

Based on my hour of research, when the two sides pick facts bring to the argument, it seems like libertarians and conservatives prefer different types of statistics.

To borrow terms from the field of economics, conservatives are concerned with lagging indicators while libertarians prefer leading indicators. Lagging indicators look at results, like measuring your weight on a scale or checking the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations in a given year. Leading indicators try to look at what’s next, like counting calories or analyzing the rate of marijuana use in teens.

The two sides aren’t likely to agree any time soon. But the trend of marijuana’s legal and social perception will be interesting to follow going forward.

Whose political views will win out? Predict it on Quibbl Politics.

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