March 10th | Posted In Philadelphia, Policy

Philadelphia Freedom

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preambleHere in Philadelphia, there is a reverence for the nation’s historical documents, as befits a city with such a deep and abiding connection to them. Visitors touring the historic district are unlikely to miss the preamble to the Constitution, emblazoned on the front of the eponymous center.

This connection makes victimless crimes stand out in stark relief to some of us who live here in the Cradle of Liberty. The Declaration of Independence adopts the clear stand that the state shouldn’t interfere with the pursuit of happiness. Yet today Pennsylvania lags behind our neighbors in Washington and Colorado by continuing to deny freedom to people who want to pursue the happiness in the form of marijuana.

But this might be about to change.  All of the Democratic candidates for governor support decriminalization and John Hanger favors legalization. It remains to be seen whether these positions will survive the tack to the middle that, as inevitable as the rush down the shore in the Summer, follows hot on the heels of the primaries, but lovers of freedoms can be forgiven a cautious optimism.   Locally, Mayor Nutter and the Philadelphia Police Department both expressed being open to ending custodial arrests for marijuana possession, and Councilman Jim Kenney has introduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana in the city.

As a psychologist, I am intrigued by an additional mystery beyond the puzzle of why a nation born in freedom so frequently works so hard – to the tune of tens of billions of dollars annually – to curtail it: We still don’t really understand why anyone cares about other people’s drug use at all.

There are some explanations that can be immediately tossed out. We’re not simply so concerned with the health and wellbeing of our fellow citizens that we want the state to save people from themselves. Yes, there’s a little of that, but citizens don’t cry out for a host of very dangerous pastimes to be banned, as David Nutt skillfully if whimsically illustrated (paywall) in his comparison of the dangers of taking ecstasy and riding horses.

If people wanted to stop people from doing fun but dangerous activities, there might well be a national War on Kiddie Pools, too.

Why do people want that state to intervene in recreational drug use but not recreational horse – or pool – use? Research continues. One approach my lab has taken is to look at individual differences.

Suppose that you could ask a stranger one question – not about drugs – and try to predict their opinion on legalizing marijuana from their answer. What would you ask?

Many people will answer something to do with political affiliation or religious participation. My collaborators and I had a different idea, which we put to the test. We asked about 500 undergraduates and about 500 people across the country in an internet sample to indicate their views regarding recreational drugs along with a number of other questionnaire items, including their views on politics, religion, and, importantly, sex.

The results in both samples were the same. The best predictor of someone’s views on recreational drug use weren’t questions having to do with political ideology, religiosity, or personality characteristics. The best predictor was an individual’s attitude towards sex, including level of agreement with items such as, “Sex without love is ok.” People who agreed more strongly with statements such as that one were more likely to agree that drugs such as marijuana should be legal. These results have now been replicated among Belgians, the Dutch, and the Japanese, though there are small differences across groups.

Of course, these two sets of studies don’t settle the issue, and much work still needs to be done. It also remains to be seen how great a role this issue plays in either the gubernatorial primary or general election. Still, it is encouraging to see Pennsylvania joining the march toward both greater freedom and, at the same time, more sensible public policy.

Given the city’s rich history of liberty, Philadelphians ought to be leading the pack.

Robert Kurzban is a Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Young Involved Philadelphia.  Young Involved Philadelphia is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information provided by the author of this article.  

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