In an article for the Heritage Foundation, Kevin Sabet argues, “marijuana legalization poses too many risks to public health and public safety.” Sabet points out that marijuana use can be dangerous, that average THC potency of marijuana has increased over the decades, that keeping marijuana illegal probably reduces the number of people using it, and like facts. (Several of his claims are debatable, but that’s a topic for another day.)
In his article, Sabet does not consider the harms of prohibiting marijuana, such as that it results in black market violence, it results in illegal street sales in which buyers of marijuana often cannot determine its purity or potency, and it encourages some people to substitute other drugs (including alcohol) for marijuana. Nor does Sabet consider that most people who use marijuana recreationally or for medicinal purposes do not violate the rights of others when doing so and do not inflict substantial harm on themselves by doing so.
But the fundamental debate is not whether marijuana is more harmful than other drugs, or whether (by whatever standard) the costs of prohibiting marijuana outweigh its benefits. The fundamental debate is whether consenting adults have a right to decide what to do with their own bodies and property, and whether government has a right to violate individual rights in the name of “public health” (or anything else).
The implicit position of Sabet’s article is that individuals do not have a right to decide what to do with their own bodies, do not have a right to contract freely with others, do not have a right to use their property as they see fit, do not have a right to act in accordance with their own judgment. Rather than defend individual rights, Sabet defends government action for the collectivist aim of so-called public health—as if such a thing could even exist apart from individuals who have rights to act on their own judgment regarding their health.
Of course, many leftists argue for such things as gun control, restrictions on fast-food restaurants, and even regulations on sugar (an extremely dangerous substance if overused) by the same collectivist standard. Is Sabet willing to join them? If not, why not?
The proper purpose of government is not to increase “public health”—an indefinable term. The proper purpose is to ban force so that individuals can act on their own judgment, so that they can live and prosper. If some individuals act irrationally—in ways that harm themselves—that is their business and their problem. So long as they do not violate the rights of others, government has no moral right to require them or forbid them to act in certain ways. (It is worth noting that some of the men and women who pass and enforce nanny-state laws are among the most irrational, self-destructive individuals on the planet.)
The government’s proper action with respect to marijuana is the same as its proper action with respect to guns, restaurants, sugar, and every other item or substance: Government should protect the rights of consenting adults to decide what to do with their bodies, what to do with their property, and how to trade with others, intervening only to protect individuals from initiatory force or fraud.