'It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it,'
'That is no excuse,' replied Mr. Brownlow. 'You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.'
'If the law supposes that,' said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, 'the law is an ass—an idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.'
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
In Dickens’ story, Mr. Bumble, Oliver’s corrupt guardian, tosses the boy’s identifying heirlooms into a river. When questioned about the act, he blames it on his wife, only to be informed that the law views his wife as his agentless servant, rendering him guilty. While Mr. Bumble may be a villain, his ruin results not from the smooth functioning a justice seeking law, but the exploitation of its absurdity by Oliver’s friend. Oliver is glad of the man’s fate, but unlikely to gain much respect for the law from the episode.
Mr. Bumble’s claim holds weight not because he is innocent, but because in convicting him, the law reveals itself to be operating on an incorrect set of assumptions about the world. While Bumble hopes that the law’s eye will be opened by experience, the early 19th century provided the law with many examples of female agency. In the face of this reality, the law blinked, continuing to indulge a fiction, and depriving itself of a basis for respect. The ongoing prohibition of marijuana blinks similarly in the face of reality and experience, placing needless strain on the rule of law.
The law is not merely the specific statue in question, but the rule of law, an institution respected, in principle, as a set of constraints necessary for the enjoyment of ordered liberty. We are not expected to pick which laws we ought to obey, but to follow them all because they are equally law. This works only when the law is applied impartially, and corresponds to a set of broadly accepted moral norms. Each statue gains the binding power of law, but, with great power, comes great responsibility; each regulation’s individual legitimacy reflects back upon the law as a whole. A small number of bad laws can do great damage to the rule of law; only a donkey’s head is necessary to make a man Bottom.
Marijuana use, while not healthy, simply does not have the deleterious effects long promised by prohibitionists. Marijuana users are not generally regarded as particularly deviant, or antisocial. Prohibition affects poorer urban users more than others, both because of racial discrimination, and the relative ease with which densely populated spaces can be searched. As a result, the ongoing to prohibition of marijuana begs us to understand the law as scientifically ignorant, discriminatory, and a least an amoral restraint.
When marijuana use is both normalized and illegal, breaking the law becomes a normal act. Would-be law abiding marijuana users regularly interact with criminals, or delve into the dark web. We shrug when passing marijuana smokers in the park, seeing something illegal, but certainly not worth arresting anyone over. Police are distrusted as enforcers of an erroneous order, or begin selectively enforcing the law. A century of prohibition has made an ass of our law with little to show for it, the sooner we can open its eyes, and begin to reverse this spell, the better.