The Scope of Government

One of the more serious problems facing us in the United States is defining the scope of government. This is not a matter of defining what the government can do, but rather what it should do. Much of the current backlash against the existing federal system – whether by marijuana advocates, (medical and other) sex educators, free speech groups, privacy groups and others is a response to a perceived change in the scope of government.

Currently, most[1] significant legislation put in place by the government falls into five categories. These are, roughly, as follows:

  1. Regulations to Protect People From Each Other — Laws against murder and armed assault, protections against fraud, regulations against improper product labeling, noise regulations, pollution control, and other similar legislation
  2. Regulations to Maintain Government Capabilities — This includes funding the military and police, taxes and tax regulations, and other similar laws
  3. Regulation to Build and Maintain Shared Infrastructure — Regulations put in place to maintain roads, courts, sewers, water distribution, public buildings, telecommunications infrastructure and other similar activities
  4. Regulations to Protect People From Circumstance — This includes Social Security, Federal Disability Insurance, Medicare, Welfare, Food Stamps and other related programs, as well as hurricane relief and FEMA.
  5. Regulations to Protect People From Themselves — Laws against the consumption of certain drugs, laws against prostitution or hiring a prostitute, regulations governing end of life issues, etc.
  6. Regulations to Protect Society From its Members — Restrictions on who may or may not marry, restrictions on hate speech, laws against some sex acts, controls on literature and images that relate to sexuality, regulations controlling what types of content can be published or broadcast, and other related regulations

One of the deeper debates we are having today, as a society, is what the proper scope of government is. We are asking ourselves, and each other, whether it makes sense to put someone in jail for possession of a substance that is directly harmful only to the person who is taking it. We are asking ourselves whether we want government making decisions about our personal lives, our choice of life partners, and many other things. Despite the religious tone of many of the people making arguments on both sides, this is not a religious debate, but rather a debate about what decisions should be made by the government, and what decisions are left to individuals.

From what I have seen to this point, the strongest and least controversial arguments for government intervention are in cases where it is protecting people from each other. This is especially true when a mostly unbiased court system acts to prevent large differences in financial or social standing between people from producing a difference in outcome. For example: if a rich person strikes a poor one, we expect, as a society, that the rich person will still face criminal charges despite the difference in economic standing. In cases where this hasn’t happened, most people were disgusted with the outcome.

In contrast, recent Texas regulations against the sale of dildos is widely ignored – or at least worked around. The laws against oral and anal sex that are on the books in several states are, largely, ignored – and the very few recent attempts to enforce them are widely regarded as politically motivated actions with no real underlying merit. This is because most people see these as personal issues, and attempts by government to regulate in these areas as inappropriate.

Life isn’t easy, and it’s very clear the each of us is faced, sooner or later, with the need to make difficult choices — choices with real consequences in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Sometimes these choices are about whether to start a pregnancy – or end one. Sometimes they are about end of life decisions when life is, in many ways, a tragedy rather than a blessing. Sometimes they are about who to share your bed with – or your life. Intelligent people who care very deeply about these issues can often disagree about how an individual situation should be handled, and whether the government should be involved in the decision.

At this point, the only thing that sensible people should all agree on is that the scope of government is a legitimate subject for debate on both a state and national level – and that people who would whittle down its traditional perquisites are not anarchists – but, rather, people who have a different view of what government should do. We need to stop stigmatizing advocates for a government with a smaller scope – whether their subject is sex or drugs – and start listening. The question is only going to become more important – not less.

[1] — In one area, the abortion debate, I wasn’t able to place the laws and proposed laws using this system. This is because, from my standpoint, one of the major subjects of debate is whether the law belongs in the first category or the sixth. Very good arguments can be made for both positions – but it should be noted that, as described in the article, the sixth category presents a far weaker argument in favor of restrictions than the first category does.

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2 Responses to The Scope of Government

  1. Terri says:

    I write to ask that you run an editorial appealing to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to end the 40-year government monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for scientific research, as called for by a U.S. Department of Justice-appointed judge.

    On May 15, DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner officially forwarded to DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart her final recommendation in support of University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor Lyle Craker’s almost six-year-old petition to cultivate marijuana for use in privately funded Food and Drug Administration-approved studies.

    The DEA now needs to either accept or reject ALJ Bittner’s recommendation. The nation is, therefore, just one step away from allowing the issue of medical marijuana to be resolved through scientific research, rather than being suppressed by politics.

    Unfortunately, it is likely that the DEA will ignore ALJ Bittner’s recommendation. Therefore, it is critical that the DEA understands that the public is aware of their actions. There is no doubt that you can bring an essential voice and needed attention to this important and pressing issue.

    At the bottom of this e-mail, I have pasted an editorial on this subject published in the Economist on March 1, 2007. It is an excellent summary of the situation (and calls on the DEA to grant the license).

    Here is the additional background information:

    Incredibly, marijuana remains the only Schedule I drug that the DEA prohibits from being produced by private laboratories for scientific research. Other controlled substances, including LSD, MDMA (also known as “Ecstasy”), heroin and cocaine, are available to researchers from DEA-licensed private laboratories.

    In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) constitutes scientists’ sole source of marijuana in the U.S. This monopoly exists despite NIDA’s inherent conflict of interest due to its mission to study the harmful effects of drugs of abuse. Further undermining its position as marijuana gatekeeper, NIDA has been criticized for its repeated refusal to make marijuana available for privately funded FDA-approved research seeking to develop smoked and/or vaporized marijuana into an FDA-approved prescription medicine. Researchers also report that marijuana available through NIDA is of low quality and variety and is not optimized to meet FDA standards for prescription drug development.

    As the situation currently stands, due to an inability to secure marijuana for research seeking to develop marijuana into an FDA-approved prescription medicine, privately funded scientists in the U.S. are entirely blocked from conducting such research. Consequently, pharmaceutical companies are effectively barred from the standard research path that would enable the FDA to determine whether marijuana should be brought to market as an approved prescription medicine. This despite the fact that roughly 75 percent of Americans support the use of medical marijuana, and that 13 states have enacted legislation protecting patients who use medical marijuana with a physician’s recommendation from prosecution under state law.

    This illogical arrangement is fundamentally responsible for muddying what would otherwise be a rather clear-cut discussion: If marijuana is such an effective medicine for a variety of debilitating ailments, than why not simply develop it as a prescription medication through the accepted pharmaceutical regulatory framework? It is because this framework, available to all other substances, controlled or otherwise, is effectively closed to marijuana. The federal government has created a marijuana exception.

    Professor Craker’s application stands to change that.

    Simply put, Professor Craker is seeking a license from DEA to cultivate marijuana that would be used by other scientists in privately funded, FDA-approved studies aimed at developing marijuana as a legal, prescription medicine.

    Unsurprisingly, Professor Craker’s initial petition, filed in June 2001, has so far been stymied by bureaucratic foot-dragging. Remaining steadfast despite four years of stonewalling, Professor Craker found his application placed before Judge Bittner in August 2005.

    On February 12 of this year, following nine days of hearings that took place over the preceding two-and-a-half years, as well as the submission of extensive testimony and evidence from both sides of the debate, Judge Bittner came down squarely in Professor Craker’s corner, concluding, “that there is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes…” and that, “Respondent’s registration to cultivate marijuana would be in the public interest.”

    Unfortunately, Judge Bittner is not the final arbiter. The Judge’s opinion, which was formally submitted to the DEA on May 15, serves as a recommendation to DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart, who will make the final call. It is vital that Deputy Administrator Leonhart be made aware of the pressing need for approval of Professor Craker’s application.

    During oral arguments in the well-publicized Gonzales v. Raich case, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that patients ask the FDA to reclassify marijuana for medical use as “the obvious way to get what they want,” adding, “Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum.” Of course, the FDA-approval route suggested by Breyer is currently closed.

    Granting Professor Craker’s application would catalyze privately funded research that could in time settle the debate over appropriate medical marijuana policy. It is the DEA’s duty to act in the public interest and it should be immediately called upon to do so. The agency must no longer be given free reign to put drug war politics before sound and necessary medical science.

    Approval of Professor Craker’s application is an issue of the utmost importance. The DEA has been allowed to subvert the scientific process, the will of the people, and the public good for far too long. A supportive editorial would do a great deal to bring an end to this injustice.

    Extensive additional background information, including client profiles, hearing transcripts, a full selection of legal documents, and letters of support from lawmakers and scientists, can be found at: or


    Joint action

    Mar 1st 2007 — From The Economist print edition

    A victory for American cannabis researchers

    FOR almost six years Lyle Craker, a researcher who studies medicinal plants at the University of Massachusetts, has been trying to grow pot. Quite a long time, one might think, for a professor of agronomy—his students, presumably, have far less trouble. The difficulty for Dr Craker, though, is that he would like to grow marijuana legally, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has so far refused to give him a licence.

    Last month a judge appointed by the Department of Justice recommended that it would be in the public interest for Dr Craker to grow the drug. Mary Ellen Bittner said that the government’s monopoly on the legal growing of cannabis is hindering legitimate research and that there is a need for a second licensed facility to grow and supply it to authorized researchers.

    Dr Craker’s case is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a not-for-profit group that supports research into the medicinal benefits of unapproved drugs. Lawyers for the groups argued that if cannabis is to be successfully licensed as a medicine by the Food and Drug Administration, a stable and secure supply is necessary. Moreover this supply is not available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the only body licensed by the DEA to grow it.

    The lawyers pointed to the case of Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He tried for many years to get cannabis from the national institute in order to conduct research on how it might help AIDS patients. This research was approved by all the necessary authorities—yet he was still refused cannabis. Later, when he changed his research to investigate whether it was dangerous for AIDS patients, his demand was supplied.

    Why is there such resistance? The DEA declined to comment on the case because it is ongoing. However Allen Hopper, a senior attorney based in Santa Cruz who works for the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the reasons for the lack of supply are political rather than scientific.

    Dr Craker’s fight is by no means over. The decision on whether he can have his licence still rests with the deputy administrator of the DEA. The agency’s decision must be as carefully argued as the judicial ruling. Even if it turns down Dr Craker’s application, he will be free to take the decision to a court of appeal.

    The grass elsewhere is most certainly greener. The British government has encouraged research into cannabis medicines, with the result that a new drug, Sativex, based on an extract of cannabis, is now being used for the relief of nerve pain by multiple-sclerosis patients in Britain, Canada and Spain.

    In January GW Pharmaceuticals, the British producer of Sativex, announced research which suggests that a version of the drug might relieve pain in conditions other than multiple sclerosis. Back in America, an article published last month in the journal Neurology showed that smoking cannabis relieved chronic HIV-associated nerve pain—a condition that is often impervious to other treatments.

    For a long time many politicians in America have argued that cannabis has no proven medicinal value. At the same time, legitimate research has been hindered by supply problems. The only way to resolve whether marijuana has useful medical properties is to test it. The DEA should grant Dr Craker his licence.

  2. jameswillisisthebest says:

    This is my first post
    just saying HI

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