Heads vs. Feds Misses the Point
by Brian Schwartz, May 1, 2003
The Heads vs. Feds debate on marijuana legalization held last Wednesday at the University of Colorado did little to clarify the principles behind prohibition. Considering that the participants, retired DEA agent Robert Stutman and High Times Editor-in-Chief Steven Hager, have debated several times and consider themselves friends1, it's disappointing that they could not step back from their arguments and simply explain the principles behind their disagreements.
Instead of debating principles, Hager and Stutman tossed out a litany of scientific studies benefits and hazards of marijuana, corruption behind legalization and prohibition activism, and pros and cons of hemp products. Presumably, each debater's purpose is not to convince his opponent, but to influence the minds of his audience. Yet, I suspect that the audience heard a hodgepodge of arguments over scientific facts and historical claims supporting both sides, and selectively remembered those supporting the position they want to hold.
The debate would have been more valuable to students had the participants discussed the principles behind prohibition: What criteria must a substance or product satisfy for a government to prohibit its possession or use? If the debaters disagree on the criteria, then sorting out the myriad of claims mentioned above is irrelevant and a waste of time. Discussing and debating the principle of prohibition would have left students with a valuable tool, principle-based reasoning, that would allow them to independently reach their own conclusions about this and other social issues. Had Mr. Hager argued from principle, he could have based his view on individual rights and self-ownership: possession, trade, and ingestion of marijuana is a peaceful and voluntary activity, and hence should not be regulated by government. As owners of our lives and bodies, we have the right to do with it as we please, and are responsible for any harm we bring upon ourselves. This argument applies to all controlled substances, whether used for medical or recreational use. This sounds consistent with Hager's decrying bureaucrats telling us what we can put in our bodies.
Because he did not argue from principles, Mr. Hager was vulnerable to Stutman's criticisms. With an reductio ad absurdum argument, Stutman said that if we legalized marijuana to reduce profits from drug trafficking, would should legalize all drugs. By not rebutting this criticism, Hager accepted Stutman's tacit assertion that legalizing all drugs would be absurd, and hence weakened his case for legalizing marijuana.
Near the end of the debate, Stutman tried to discredit the marijuana legalization movement by quoting a leading medical marijuana activist who said that the movement to legalize marijuana for medical purposes is a merely a strategy for legalizing it altogether. By not responding to this claim (he had a chance), Mr. Hager accepted the "guilty as charged" implication of this statement. Instead, Hager could have taken the moral high ground by saying: "Yes, this is a great strategy, and I don't see the problem with saving lives and reducing suffering in the process of fighting for our rights."
Instead of emphasizing rights, Hager used his remaining time to mention a recent study published in a well-respected medical journal2 that supposedly demonstrates benefits of cannabis compounds, and concluded by quoting praises for marijuana from the Rig Veda, a Hindu text written more than 6000 years ago. While juxtaposing these statements may awe people into agreeing with him and comfort those fitting the Boulder stereotype, it is no substitute for principled thinking.
The Heads vs. Feds debate illustrates both the importance of principles in making a convincing case for political freedom, and that a poor argument for a cause can do more harm than good.
1 Yes, they say they are "friends", according to the Chairman of B.I.R.C.H. (firstname.lastname@example.org), the student group that organized the debate.
2 Hager mentioned The Lancet April, 2003, but I could find only this: Journal of the American Medical Association, April 16, 2003, p. 1929. The authors suggest both positive and negative effects of cannabinoids.
Brian T. Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in Electrical Engineering at the University of Colorado, where he is also active with the Campus Libertarians. He is also a member of the Colorado Freedom Report's Board of Advisors.