There are things you expect to see at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and there are things you don’t. One of the things you probably don’t is an audience cheering and applauding arguments for legalizing pot and bemoaning the war on drugs.
A panel titled “Rocky Mountain High” held Thursday afternoon started out as a debate between Mary Katharine Ham of Fox and Hot Air and Christopher Beach a staffer for former Drug Czar William Bennett’s radio show. But as the debate wore on it became clear the real disagreement was between Beach and the overwhelming majority of the audience.
The Q&A portion of the panel lasted well over an hour. Person after person stood up to challenge Beach’s position on the war on drugs or the dangers of pot. Toward the end of the 100 minutes it had become a kind of joke. After one tough question by someone who clearly favored legalization, Beach turned to Ham and said “I guess that one’s for me.”
To be fair, both Ham and Beach did a mostly solid job presenting facts to support their opinions. Beach argued that marijuana was much stronger than it was back in the 70s meaning the potential for it to do harm had increased over the years. Ham responded by pointing out that during alcohol prohibition beer became illegal so most people switched to moonshine because it provided the most bang for the buck on the black market. Perhaps, Ham suggested, legalizing pot will gradually allow it to become a less concentrated product, indeed maybe a safer product than alcohol.
That’s how it went, point and counterpoint. If Beach and Ham had been having the debate in an empty room no one would accuse either of them of falling down on the job. But the room was not empty. One of the first questions came from a man who said he was a retired law enforcement officer. In a loud voice from the back of the room he made a compelling, articulate case for not wasting law enforcement’s time on pot possession when there were more serious crimes that needed attention. Question after question challenged the sense of pot “prohibition” for more than an hour. No one in the audience seemed interested in arguing the contrary.
If there was a low point for Beach it came during his answer to another tough question when he suggested that the first duty of government was to protect its citizens. Then he added that sometimes “that means protecting them from themselves.” This brought an audible groan from the audience that clearly had libertarian instincts on issues besides pot.
To his credit, Beach did say that the beauty of America’s Republic was that the laboratories of democracy were free to experiment with things like pot legalization. Though he clearly believed the Colorado experiment with pot would be a failure in the long run, he was more than willing to let the experiment play out and judge the results.
Mary Katharine Ham opened her speech by noting she became “the weed girl” quite accidentally after arguing about pot with Bill O’Reilly on Fox. She made clear she is not a pot smoker but believes in legalization on libertarian grounds. What the panel Thursday demonstrated is that, even at the most conservative conclave in Washington DC, libertarian arguments for legalization have a surprising amount of support.