Why Won’t This Nation Go to Pot?

After seven years of charm, toughness, late hours and high spirits, John O’Sullivan steps down as editor of National Review . He will continue to write for the magazine and (restaurateurs sigh relievedly) to live in New York. His successor is Rich Lowry, who has ably upheld the magazine’s tradition of political writing going back to James Jackson Kilpatrick and John Dos Passos. Rich is so young (29) and normal, it’s practically scary. We look forward to fun times.

The changeover highlighted one point of general interest. We could not pick just any genius of impeccable conservative credentials, because some of the definitions of conservative have shifted. Over the last decade, National Review has distinguished itself from the conservative journalistic community on two important issues: immigration and drugs. As I told a friend at The Wall Street Journal over lunch recently, “We’re against all wetbacks, unless they’re smuggling dope.”

On the face of it, this is an odd combination of issue positions. To support the legalization of some drugs (primarily marijuana), and a rethinking of the drug war in its entirety, as National Review does, looks like an elitist position. George Soros, the pro-decriminalization billionaire currency trader, and Murphy Brown, who presumably sank in Dan Quayle’s esteem when she smoked pot during her chemotherapy, are not your typical representatives of the Peepul. Every politician of both parties, from Bill Bennett to Bill Clinton, and excluding only a few pariahs like Barney Frank, is ranged firmly against us. On the immigration issue, we find the company we keep reversed. Elite journalists recite pro-immigration mantras straight out of the Ellis Island museum, while polls repeatedly show large majorities of Americans in favor of restricting current immigration levels.

The two issues also seem philosophically inconsistent. Retooling the drug war looks like don’t-tread-on-me libertarianism, while erecting stop signs at John F. Kennedy International Airport and across the Tijuana-San Diego corridor looks like the reverse. Where is the consistency in letting people light up, but preventing them from moving here? Thomas Paine, or Otto von Bismarck: Why can’t National Review make up its mind?

Upon inspection, these neat antitheses break down. The war on drugs is popular-understandably, considering the problems drugs pose-but fighting medical marijuana is not the populist position. Polls regularly show large majorities in favor of it. A medical-marijuana referendum lost in Washington State, which means that after victories in California and Arizona last year, medical marijuana is batting .666-better than Ted Williams. Refusing to relieve the sick is in fact an extremist dogma of the political class. Anyone who had to buy marijuana for himself, or for a friend or family member, would do it. Unlike the politicians, the public is willing to admit it.

Second thoughts on unrestricted immigration, meanwhile, are occurring to the pointyheads. The National Academy of Sciences and the Rand Corporation have published deeply skeptical studies of the economic impact of current policy. Fred Siegel, the professor and polemicist, is an interesting local bellwether. Mr. Siegel, who teaches history at Cooper Union and to New Yorkers in general, has the sociological profile of a pro-immigration stalwart-a Jewish Brooklynite of quasi-neocon views. He still thinks immigration is a fine thing. But so, he adds, is eating, and “I try not to eat more than three times a day.”

The small-state, big-state dichotomy also does not apply to the two issues. The urge to rethink the drug war is derived less from libertarian theory than from prudence, grounded on the observations that some illegal drugs (e.g., pot) are not as harmful as advertised, and that the flat-out prohibition of others has passed the point of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the question of what laws should apply to citizens is of a different order than the question of who gets to be one. Every club, much less a nation, has the right to pick its own members, and the freest club in the world can decide that it has too many.

How do our pet issues fare politically? Frankly, not well. Immigration is the nonbarking dog of the conservative establishment. Listening to House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas on the subject is dismaying. He actually quotes the Bible-the only time this gimlet-eyed economist consults Holy Writ. The recent flurry over “national-greatness conservatism”-a slogan proposed by William Kristol and my friend David Brooks-and even conservative bellowing over China, serve (quite apart from the merits of the cases) as maneuvers: ways of invoking nationalist sentiment without mentioning the I-word.

On medical marijuana, the worst news recently is Steve Forbes’ decision to enlist his talent and energy on the side of the devils. Being such a complete novice seriously handicaps him in his efforts to become President. Mr. Smith probably shouldn’t go to Washington, at least not that high, that fast. But the compensating benefit of Mr. Forbes’ outsider status is that he can say things no pol dares to say. The flat tax and the I.R.S. were nonissues until Steve Forbes took them up. Now he tells us, at great expense, the tired litany of every bureaucratic seat-warmer-that marijuana is a dangerous, even a deadly, drug; that legalizing it would send a bad signal to kids (so make morphine illegal); that alternative medicines exist (Telling doctors what to recommend, and patients what to take-isn’t that socialized medicine?). At least he could tell us untrue things that were new, such as that medical marijuana would complicate the tax code.

Rudolph Giuliani, Rex Novi Eboraci, has announced that in his second term he will make his domains drug-free. Mr. Siegel once again had the opposite response: “It’s like rural beautification in Van Cortlandt Park.” Chasing dealers, pushers and lowlifes off the streets is a legitimate, and doable, quality-of-life goal. But the drug war in its larger strategic shape will be no more winnable in his second term than it was in his first-or than it was when he was a Federal prosecutor, pioneering such law enforcement tools as asset forfeiture. The Republican Party’s new Boy Wonder should look after things he does control, like the municipal payroll.

Why Won’t This Nation Go to Pot?