Libertarian schism beginning to emerge over marijuana legalization initiative

For the past few months, the pro-drug legalization coalition behind California’s controversial Proposition 19 seemed to be a fairly stable group, as it largely united civil libertarians fighting for personal liberty and progressives searching for additional tax revenue. 

But now, tensions are beginning to erupt, as a recent Chamber of Commerce ad depicts Proposition 19 not as a move forward for civil libertarianism, but rather as a badly written trade-off which sacrifices economic liberty for personal license. The Los Angeles Times reports: 

     “The California Chamber of Commerce and other groups representing employers are starting to line up to oppose the initiative to legalize marijuana, charging that Proposition 19 would allow pot smokers to light up on the job and operate dangerous equipment while stoned. 

     Stepping up the campaign on Thursday, the chamber released a five-page analysis that starts: ‘Imagine a workplace where employees show up to work high on marijuana and there is nothing you can do about it.’” 

It is worth noting that the Chamber’s opposition has little, if anything, to do with drug legalization. Rather, the issue is a separate provision of Proposition 19, which imposes a burden on employers to show that employees have actually had their work aversely affected by marijuana before firing them. This element of the law suggests something problematic with respect to Proposition 19 – namely, that the question of legalization may only be a secondary point with respect to the bill, with the more important question being whether this bill is the right vehicle by which to advance that discussion. 

This question will likely concern both proponents and opponents of the measure, with proponents having to do some serious soul-searching (and possibly having to sacrifice a few coalition members in the process), and with opponents having to come up with plausible reasons why Proposition 19, for reasons totally unrelated to the moral argument against legalization, is the wrong option. Of these two groups, the opponents are clearly in a stronger position, given that any economic libertarians who defect thanks to the Chamber of Commerce ad will almost inevitably strengthen the thrust of the anti-Proposition 19 argument. 

Fortunately for proponents, the counterargument to the ad may be fairly easy to make, given that it’s not clear whether the law’s language actually prohibits employers from banning marijuana usage on the job – something which the ad makes great hay with, claiming that stoned truck drivers are one of the potential dangers of Proposition 19. Moreover, the claim that people will show up to work “toked” is severely weakened at the point where alcohol and tobacco usage don’t seem to provide meaningful impairments to workplace performance. 

However, for the more purist libertarians who back the measure, this may not be enough where the employment requirements are concerned. Especially given that the people standing up to defend the measure’s employment requirement are unions, a constant bête noire of the libertarian movement, it seems likely that the issue will not die just because parts of the ad are disputable.

California’s pro-legalization coalition has historically been a strong group with a simple desire to keep the government out of the wallet and out of the bong. However, the problem with Proposition 19 is that it may force them to choose which one is more urgent.