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Debate over pot cuts across traditional political lines

Kirk Caraway
Appeal Internet Editor

There are a number of good debates taking place in the comments section on nevadaappeal.com, with something new every day.

People have a lot to say about a whole range of issues, and believe me, they aren’t shy about expressing themselves. It may get a little wild on these comment boards, but I think it’s one of the best things we ever did. News should be a conversation, not a lecture, and the online comments are a way for everyone to join the discussion.

One debate that has persisted for a number of days has been the battle over legalizing marijuana. It’s been testy at times, with a lot of invective hurled back and forth.

But what makes it interesting for me is how this issue cuts across the standard partisan lines that define most contemporary issues. There is still a strong liberal-conservative divide, but there is also another dynamic at work.

You have the more religious conservatives teamed up with a number of nanny-state liberals who are against legalization. On the pro side, you have a strong liberal contingent joined by the more libertarian conservatives. And those stuck in the middle you might as well flip a coin to figure out where they stand.

It makes for an odd fight. You can have prominent conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr, urging legalization, going up against Bill “I didn’t inhale” Clinton, who supported continued prohibition.

Issues like legalizing marijuana cause upheaval in the ideological strata, and give you a glimpse at the basis for these political views.

Many of the online debaters who are against legalization hit upon the moral aspects of the law. Smoking pot is morally wrong, and for the government to legalize it would be condoning immorality. Government should uphold high moral standards, and enforce them vigorously. Throw the pot smokers in jail, they say. If the punishment is harsh enough, eventually people won’t smoke it anymore.

But there is a problem with this stand that shows why so many people even among conservatives are in favor of legalization. For moral standards to take hold, there has to be clear lines drawn between moral and immoral acts.

Alcohol consumption is legal, accepted and even encouraged by our culture, even though it is arguably more harmful than marijuana.

Telling people they can use alcohol but not marijuana is like telling children they can have Pepsi but not Sprite. It’s a difference without distinction.

The mixed message it sends breaks down the moral boundaries, leaving 39 percent of Nevada voters opting for legalization during the last election, and a clear majority favoring legalizing marijuana for medical use.

While 39 percent isn’t a majority, it spells trouble for keeping the drug illegal. Think of any other criminal law on the books where such a large percentage disagrees with the law. Other than gambling and prostitution, I can’t think of any. And look how we handle those issues in Nevada.

Setting criminal standards takes a clear consensus of the population for it to work, not just a bare majority. When you have a contentious issue like marijuana, making it illegal just breeds contempt for the justice system in general. I would argue this disrespect for the authority of government outweighs any benefit from keeping the drug illegal.

Balancing freedom and morality is a difficult task. Many people say you can’t legislate morality, but that is what we often demand from our government. We all want the freedom to pursue what we believe is moral, but then we seek the enforcement of our moral boundaries, otherwise immorality might spread like disease.

Freedom is a disease, also, and I feel it is spreading faster than those who oppose it can erect walls to stop it.

Will Nevada voters approve the reform of marijuana laws this year? I don’t know. But I do think it’s just a matter of time.

— Kirk Caraway is Internet editor of the Nevada Appeal. Write to him at kcaraway@nevada appeal.com, or comment online at nevadaappeal.com.