Kevin Sabet, former top advisor to Drug Czars under both Bush and Obama, has recently launched a new organization entitled Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), that is lobbying against the legalization of marijuana. Although SAM concedes the most egregious failures of the drug war such as the harms of arresting responsible cannabis consumers (by replacing this with forced rehab), and destructive stop and frisk policies, they continue to deny basic human rights in hopes that most Americans won’t care. Why should we? The vast majority of us don’t smoke marijuana. Why should we care about protecting someone else’s vice?
In the 1970’s, the ACLU successfully defended the Nazis’ first amendment right to march in Skokie, Illinois. Deciding by popularity who is entitled to their first amendment rights is precisely what led to the criminalization of Jews in Nazi Germany. To secure the first amendment rights of Jews, we must secure them for all. This is also why Jews have been such staunch supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. It is not for voters to decide who is allowed to drink at the water fountain, for there are many regions throughout America that would repeal the Equal Rights Act if they could. We Jews appreciate that after the crosses finish burning on the lawns of our Black brothers and sisters, they’ll be ignited on ours. It may sometimes seem counter intuitive, but our civil rights are inextricably connected to the civil rights of others. Even those of our sworn enemies. It would be wise for non-cannabis users to learn this lesson.
After the attacks of 9/11, the ACLU (and many Jews) defended the rights of Muslims in New York City for this same reason. We must jealously guard our freedom of religion, because the next right to be threatened may be your own. But our vigilance must not end with the first amendment. The body politic is like the human body: its health is sustained by exercise. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And we have been rapidly losing. In this digital age, our personal information is owned, bought and sold by corporations. Phone tapping in 1972 was an outrage worthy of impeaching the President. Today, your iPhone divulges your exact location, when you were there and how long, the books you read and which ones you liked, the political organizations you support, and the content of all your correspondence. The government and private industry is free to pilfer this personal information without a warrant.
We Americans have frittered away precious civil liberties that were paid for with blood and sacrifice. 18 year old children died in Viet Nam so that today high school seniors could have the right to vote. Hundreds of thousands of slaves line the ocean floors so that today we all may participate fully in society, marry whom we please (of the opposite sex), live, eat and drink where we wish, ride in the front of the bus, and vote for an African-American President if we choose.
Now Kevin Sabet and his friends have yet another reason to remove even more of our civil liberties. If you don’t use cannabis, the next person to be caught in the web of criminal justice may be your child, cousin, or next-door neighbor. Lest you still feel safe, if you are an alcohol consumer you are squarely in Kevin’s sites. Kevin, who was arguably the second most powerful drug policy advocate in the world, believes alcohol prohibition was a good idea. Kevin has consistently made an extraordinarily convincing argument to resurrect alcohol prohibition. He cites alarming statistics of the harms caused by alcohol and the failure of regulation to ameliorate them. If, according to Kevin, alcohol prohibition is unfeasible because alcohol is culturally entrenched, what will happen to alcohol consumers when (as has happened with cannabis and tobacco) society’s mores change? What other civil liberties will SAM auction off by popular vote? Half of all Americans are overweight. Do we want to allow the government to deny our rights because of an unhealthy lifestyle? Who will determine what constitutes being unhealthy? The government, which states that cannabis is as dangerous as heroin (both are Schedule I drugs)? A few days ago, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this determination was neither arbitrary nor capricious.
The constitution and its amendments were created to safeguard society. Upholding our constitution and our civil liberties is patriotic, quintessentially American, moderate and centrist. Regulating potentially dangerous activities is also moderate and centrist. Although I agree with Kevin that the history of alcohol (and tobacco) regulation has been fraught with difficulties, in the words of Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” My reinterpretation: there’s only one thing worse than regulating drugs. Not regulating drugs. The drug war has shredded the constitution and deregulated dangerous activities. Despite Kevin’s attempt to appear moderate, this is radical extremism. Although most Americans don’t use cannabis, we all have good reason to support sound cannabis regulation and to be highly critical of SAM. But the real threat to our safety is neither cannabis, nor SAM, it is our willingness to give up our own civil liberties and our apathy once we lose them.