At its December 2 meeting, the Denver City Council took a step in the right direction and reversed its decision to ban smoking marijuana on private property if visible from the street or sidewalk after originally voting 7-5 in favor. Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, who offered the amendment, said “I really believe [that if] the front of your property is open, it is public.” She continued, saying that it “does set the standard. I am trying to balance the rights of those who consume marijuana and those who want to protect some enjoyment of their own property.”
The amendment was yet another step by the government to abridge individual property rights by redefining what constitutes private property and what constitutes public property. Not only would this action have opened the door to more government intrusion into our private lives, it would have brought negative economic consequences as well.
With the support of voters, the government succeeded in banning smoking in bars and restaurants by defining these privately-owned establishments as public places. The amendment would have prevented people from smoking marijuana on their private property because other people who don’t support such behavior and might feel deprived of enjoying their own property if they could see others smoking — despite the fact that a majority of voters approved the legalization of private consumption of marijuana.
Now, Councilwoman Debbie Ortega plans to offer a new proposal that would ban smoking anywhere within 1,000 feet of a school, because clearly, if you live near a school, your dwelling doesn’t count as private property.
The bigger problem is the paternalistic mindset on the council itself. If the Denver City Council holds the power to ban people from smoking marijuana on their private property because some people disapprove of that lifestyle, what will prevent the them from banning people from smoking cigarettes or cigars, drinking alcohol, engaging in kissing, or even holding hands if enough people disapprove of their lifestyle? It may seem far-fatched, but the town of San Rafael, Calif. recently took things a step further and banned smoking in all homes that share walls with other residences.
“I believe that it is our responsibility to be more restrictive, and then we can come back and look at where we need to make changes,” Ortega said. “It will be far easier to loosen things than taking those floodgates and try to close them sometime later.”
Contrary to Ortega’s argument, history has taught us just the opposite. It very difficult to have the government step back after it steps in. Public policy surrounding marijuana doesn’t require us to set aside moral objections to the drug, but it does require us to look at the costs and benefits these policies. A little over a year ago, Colorado became one of the first two states to legalize marijuana consumption–making history by making the first step toward ending the war on drugs whose costs have been shown to far exceed the benefits. Monday’s decision was a step forward, but the Denver City Council could just as easily take two steps back if it continues along its paternalistic path.
Alexandre Padilla is an associate professor of economics and the director of the Exploring Economic Freedom Project at Metropolitan State University of Denver. A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the Denver Post.