In the early days of the state-level movement to legalize marijuana, we often got opposition from a surprising camp – libertarians.
You would think libertarians would be thrilled with laws rolling back cannabis prohibition, but for many, it wasn’t enough. Skeptical libertarians found a myriad of reasons to oppose legalization efforts, saying they “didn’t go far enough.”
The movement started in the early 1970s and really started to grow with the legalization of medical marijuana in California way back in 1996. Opponents protested, “what about everybody else?”
Some libertarians also opposed medical marijuana on principle, saying people shouldn’t need a state-issued “card” to access cannabis. They’re not wrong theoretically. Asking the government for permission is never desirable. But the fact is virtually all of these people carry a card so they can drive.
As the legalization movement grew and states started allowing recreational marijuana, libertarians often complained about the tax and regulatory schemes attached to cannabis legalization bills and used this as a reason to oppose reforms. Of course, you never heard any of these people arguing that it would be better for alcohol to be illegal rather than heavily taxed and regulated, as it is in most states.
Another common objection was that legalizing marijuana doesn’t help people who have already been convicted of marijuana crimes. Having a criminal record has lifelong consequences and millions of people have to go through life with this legal millstone tied around their necks simply because at some point they possessed or sold a plant. What about these people? Again, they would actively oppose legalization bills on this basis.
But think about the implied logic. We’re going to allow more people to get caught in this legal web because this bill doesn’t address the needs of people already caught in this legal web. Sounds self-defeating, doesn’t it?
In reality, all of these are legitimate concerns. These libertarian opponents were generally right about the problems inherent in most legalization schemes. They were good on the philosophy. But opposing legalization efforts because they “aren’t good enough” is a bad strategy.
Consider this: would a starving man turn down a slice of bread because it wasn’t a whole loaf?
Let’s be honest here. Today, we’re starving for liberty at every turn.
Sometimes you have to take what you get so you have the ability to move forward. If the man gets a slice of bread, he’ll have the energy to go for that loaf.
The same principle applies to legislative activism. Small steps forward often lead to more steps forward.
Thomas Jefferson understood this well. In fact, in a 1790 letter to the Rev. Charles Clay Jefferson said liberty is to be gained by inches.
“The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches that we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.” [Emphasis added]
Consider the issue of past marijuana convictions. It’s true that in the early days of the cannabis legalization movement, this was rarely addressed. But today, most proposed legalization measures include provisions to expunge past convictions. As just one example, Between July and September 2021, New Jersey courts dismissed or vacated an estimated 362,000 marijuana cases. But if those early efforts had failed because they weren’t good enough, we would have never gotten to this place.
Here’s the strategic reality: once a state legalizes marijuana – even if only in a very limited way – the law tends to eventually expand, often times because good people are pointing out how the first step isn’t good enough..
As the state tears down some barriers, markets develop and demand expands. That creates pressure to further relax state law. I’ve seen this over and over again. States that initially ban home marijuana cultivation often relax laws to allow it down the road. Limits on production get raised. Expungement provisions get passed.
But you have to take the first step before you can take the second.
Jefferson understood this too. In a letter to James Madison on Nov. 17, 1798 – the day after his Kentucky Resolutions opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed – he wrote:
I inclose you a copy of the draught of the Kentucky resolves. I think we should distinctly affirm all the important principles they contain, so as to hold to that ground in future, and leave the matter in such a train as that we may not be committed absolutely to push the matter to extremities, & yet may be free to push as far as events will render prudent.
It’s important not to allow the perfect to become the enemy of good when it comes to political activism. Opposing decent or even mediocre bills can slam the door on broader reforms in the future.
Thomas Jefferson was right. To advance liberty in the face of the largest government in history, we have to use smart strategy.
Take what we can get by pushing “as far as events will render prudent,” and then “eternally press forward” for more.