Two Holidays in One

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, of course, but this year it coincided with the far more secular holiday of 4-20. For the sake of the squares among you we will explain that “4-20” is a sub-cultural slang term for marijuana. Some marijuana enthusiasts make a ritual of indulging each day at 4:20, although we’re not sure if it’s supposed to be A.M. or P.M, or perhaps both, if your sleep schedule is accommodating, and the 20th day of the fourth month of the year has become an unofficial national 24 hours of marijuana celebration. Easter didn’t prove a distraction for the large crowds that gathered in various cities across the country, and in The Mile High City of Denver 4-20 pushed the holiest day in Christendom right off the front page.
Tens of thousands gathered in a Denver park, according to the Associated Press, to smoke enough marijuana to make the nearby buildings look quite hazy in the news photographs. The state of Colorado has recently legalized the sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana, and although it remains in violation of federal laws and it is still illegal to smoke marijuana in public there seems to be a considerable degree of tolerance regarding the drug. Reports indicated that only 103 of those tends of thousands were cited, and only 92 of them marijuana violations. The rest were presumably handed a more expensive ticket for consuming tobacco in one of the nearby taverns. There seems to have been no violence or other problems associated with the party, and it can be assumed that the nearby fast-food outlets and convenience stores did a brisk business, so the event might become an annual tradition if anyone can remember the location. Most years it won’t fall on Easter, and a few more pious potheads might join in.
A bunch of grubby neo-hippies littering a park and giving a contact high to an entire neighborhood might not seem the most persuasive image that the pro-legalization movement might send to a wary non-pot-smoking public, which thus far retains a political majority in the country, and would probably be more sympathetic to the respectable Saab-driving suburban pothead who tries to hide it from the kids, but they do seem to be on a roll lately. Polling shows public sentiment moving toward legalization with the dizzying speed of same-sex marriage, legislation and referenda are being considered in several states, prominent politicians from both parties have offered their endorsements, and a certain sweet scent of inevitably is wafting across the land like the smoke from that rally in the park. It’s partly the Baby Boomer’s dominance of the Democratic party, and partly the increasing influence of libertarians and libertarianism in the Republic Party, but we suspect it’s mainly because everybody in government at every level is increasingly desperate for more and more revenues. Just as the Great Depression brought and end to the prohibition of alcohol, the current never-ending recession will prompt the government to cut itself in on the enormous trade in marijuana.
When it does happen, all those 4-20 types around the country won’t necessarily be celebrating. They’ve been smoking tax-free so far, and will be surprised to find how very expensive is the government’s fair share. Pot has previously been free of regulatory oversight, as well, and bureaucrats are notorious buzz-kills. In our newspaper days checking the fly-sheets at the local jail we noticed that the only people who ever got arrested for marijuana were selling large amounts in a careless way or had small amounts in their pockets while they were being arrested for something else, but we’re sure law enforcement will take a more active interest in the matter when state funds are stake. They’ll miss that slight outlaw frisson, too, and some will consider take up tobacco to regain that rebel stand.
State governments are all in the numbers racket already, with their lotteries and casinos ruthlessly protected monopolies, and government itself can be understood as sanctified protection racket. In Puerto Rico they’re considering getting in on the prostitution to trade to erase a debilitating debt, along with other ideas ranging from legalizing weed to reviving the country’s once-great coffee trade, and the more indebted states will be tempted to do the same after they’ve taxed all their rich people into other jurisdictions. State-sanctioned marijuana, which would be far more palatable to those aging Baby Boomer Democrats and their haranguing feminist wives as well those libertarian Republicans and their religious friends, will soon be an easy sell to a cash-strapped public.
A better way to fill the public coffers would be to expand the broader economy with tax and regulatory incentives to create more productive goods and services, but that’s a harder sell. There are good arguments against putting someone in prison at taxpayer cost for smoking marijuana, and good arguments for taking small cut on that marijuana to keep someone in prison for something more detrimental to the society, but parks full of grubby neo-hippies and agencies full of rapacious bureaucrats is not going to be a successful combination.

— Bud Norman

The Ruling of the Court and the Rule of the People

The crucial chore of eliminating Obamacare, and preserving our rights as free men and women, is up to the people now. In a better world the Constitution would protect us from such outrageous expansions of governmental power, but not in this one. Not after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday that the deceptively named Affordable Care Act, better known to the public as Obamacare, is constitutional.

The majority decision for the surprise ruling argues that the act’s “individual mandate” — the requirement that citizens purchase government-approved health insurance or pay a fine — is tantamount to a tax, and is therefore valid because the Constitution grants government the power of taxation. Some conservatives have concluded that the court has given hope for future decisions limiting government power by offering such a circuitous rationale, rather than allowing the law to stand based on a more permissive interpretation of the commerce clause, and one can hope they are right, but future decisions that allow such expansions of government authority on the basis of the power to tax will still be allowing unrestricted government. Nor does the argument change the fact that the immediate consequence of the decision is that the government is allowed to restrict the rights of its citizens in ways that are certain to make the health care system more expensive and less effective.

Defining the individual mandate as a tax does offer one consolation, though, as it should offer much help in the political effort to repeal the disastrous the health care reform law. Obama won election on an oft-repeated promise that no one making less than $250,000 a year would see any new taxes or tax increases, and had famously argued with a television interviewer that the individual mandate did not violate his pledge because it is not a tax, but he now has to run for re-election with his name attached to an historically large tax increase that falls mostly on the middle class or concede that the bill is only constitutional by virtue of a fallacious argument.

The ruling also pushes Obama’s consistently unpopular signature achievement back into the political debate, with a timely reminder of its many faults. Anger toward the bill was a major reason that the Democrats suffered huge losses in the 2010 mid-term elections, and since that time the Congressional Budget Office has found it to be vastly more expensive than previously supposed, its CLASS program for assisted living has been scrapped because of the very reasons its critics had predicted, and insurance costs have steadily risen, so the issue could prove even more effective this time around.

While it would have been a good thing for the Court to establish a firm legal principle that the government cannot compel Americans to purchase products or services against their will, establishing the same rule at the ballot box might be even more effective. The judgment of the people has always settled issues more permanently than the opinions of five Justices, as the ongoing battles over the 39-year-old Roe v. Wade decision demonstrates, and it is possible that it might settle this one correctly.

It is of the utmost importance, however, that restraining the government’s lust for power happen one way or the other. The reason Thursday’s ruling came as a surprise to most observers is that the oral arguments had gone so badly for the government’s lawyer, especially when he was asked what limits on government power would exist if the Constitution somehow countenanced the individual mandate. There’s still no good answer to that question, and it certainly cannot be found in the Court’s decision.

— Bud Norman