In these illiberal times, we should applaud any attempts to grant adults greater freedom in their everyday lives. So the bold decision by the US state of Colorado to legalise marijuana – rather than simply to tolerate it, as is done in seemingly liberal places such as Amsterdam – should be celebrated, even by those ambivalent to the saddo lifestyle cult that can surround the drug.
Yet it is worth bearing in mind how conservative this experiment really is. While the legislation has certainly liberalised how marijuana is supplied – the new measures allow anyone over the age of 21 to purchase up to an ounce of weed at a time – there are still some pretty strict laws surrounding its sale and consumption. As the Denver Post notes, you can certainly buy it in Colorado (in shops required to capture your face on security camera), but don’t bet on being able to smoke it anywhere outside the four walls of your own home or in some selected hotel rooms. What’s more, you can still be fired for smoking it, even off-duty, at many places of work, and the state has tightened up rules over driving under its influence. And, inevitably, the sale of marijuana will come under extensive regulation, similar to that which is applied to tobacco, with harsh penalties for vendors and buyers found in breach of them. It will also be sold in plain packaging.
Given this is an experiment being undertaken in a country where marijuana is still illegal, we should perhaps not be too harsh on Colorado lawmakers. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this move was not won on any principle of personal liberty: those campaigning for legalisation based their arguments on increased tax revenues, benefits to local tourism and reduced policing costs.
Of course, any political move that offers a liberal alternative to the destructive War on Drugs deserves a hearing. Yet, for all its political bravery, Colorado’s move to legalise marijuana fails to offer a direct challenge to the logic of prohibition. Should the expected tax revenues not materialise or the costs of the new law’s implementation suddenly rise, we may well find that Colorado’s supposed grand victory for its citizens’ personal liberty disappears in a puff of smoke.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.