Bans and Morality

Sometimes the law is too big for our problems.

Photo: Linny Morris

Funny how banning something never makes it go away. Instead, the things we ban become cultural obsessions, with time and money spent pushing those things into the dark. In the wake of marijuana legalizations in Washington and Colorado, Hawaii lawmakers briefly dragged pot out into the light, held it up uncomfortably, then tossed it right back into the shadows of the War on Drugs, in which prosecutors obsess over conviction rates and cops beef up their budgets and SWAT tactics.

In “Weed, Whacked,” associate editor Tiffany Hill explores what went down at the Legislature and why Hawaii, for all its political liberalism, did not follow in the footsteps of those other blue states.One of the thorniest problems of civilization is the tension between law and morality. Abortion didn’t used to be legal, now it is, though roughly half the country describes itself as pro-life. Even some pro-choice citizens believe abortion to be morally complicated, yet best left to individuals to decide, not government or the law. At the same time, many pro-choice citizens—if we assume this stance is part of a package of political preferences dubbed “Democrat” or “liberal”—would be more than happy to ban guns, denying the possibility that the decision to own a gun may be best determined by individual citizens. Flip the issues and the political persuasions and you might find the same intolerance among some gun owners over abortion rights.

Everybody, it seems, wants to make something someone else does illegal.

The thing about illegality, though, is, once you’ve banned something, you’ve made some of your neighbors criminals. Next come cops, courts and prisons, to punish the thing you find objectionable. The same apparatus society built to go after thieves, murderers and rapists gets aimed at people who smoked the wrong leaves or swallowed the wrong pill.

Seems like a waste of a perfectly good justice system to me. I wish we could remember that the law is not the only tool we have to shape behavior. There’s also disapproval, criticism. Free speech.

For example, this nation waged a successful war on cigarettes without resorting to prohibition, with an anti-smoking message so fervently advanced that it now seems anachronistic to see the “no smoking” message in theaters before a movie begins. Smoke in a movie theater? Who would do such a thing?

When it comes to marijuana, the country seems to be headed somewhere similar. In our unscientific online poll of readers, 69.5 percent thought pot should be legalized, but 59.3 percent said they had no interest in using it themselves, even if legal. They’ve passed the point where they think this is a problem that needs society’s armed guards to solve.

This is a difficult thing to be comfortable with: Legalization is not approval, it is not an endorsement. It is not the end of the argument over whether a given act is right or wrong. All it does is take the cops and prisons out of the discussion.

For me, the criminalization of pot is more trouble than it’s worth. But pakalolo fans of Hawaii, don’t think I’m on your side. All I said was, pot should probably be legal. I reserve the right to feel vaguely disappointed if I learn that you like to smoke out on your weekends. I think stoners probably ought to grow up. I just don’t think they should be in jail.