Gov. Gary Herbert made some principled, thoughtful and bold statements on a series of important policy issues this week that are closely connected to Utah’s culture and identity. It is a reminder of why Utah is and remains such a good place to live, work and raise a family — both its people and its elected officials are conservative leaders who genuinely seek to do what is right for the state.
The first issue of consequence was the proposed legalization of medical marijuana. Gov. Herbert is right to be concerned about the possibility of such legalization leading to recreational use of marijuana, or even complete legalization of the drug. Thoughtful Utahns across the state should share his concern.
In California, legalization of “medical marijuana,” combined with marijuana decriminalization, has led to widespread recreational use of the drug — the “sham” that Gov. Herbert noted. And in the states where recreational marijuana use is legal — Colorado, Oregon, Washington and now Alaska — that possibility only came about due to the cultural impact of policies like medical marijuana legalization. Any proposed medical-marijuana legislation in Utah should strictly limit the available forms of the drug, tightly regulate and control its production and distribution and impose significant penalties to disincentivize its use and weed out bad actors. In other words, it should model Utah’s successful alcohol-control policies.
Regarding Utah alcohol policy, Gov. Herbert said we ought “just to give it a rest” when it comes to adjusting Utah’s liquor controls, such as the requirement that Utah restaurants maintain separate areas for mixing and pouring drinks. And he is right. The liquor lobby’s never-ending quest to undermine and peck away at the alcohol laws that have minimized harm to Utahns from drinking has gotten tiresome.
Clearly, bars and restaurants in Utah believe they can make a lot of money if they can let the liquor flow freely. But nationally accepted, peer-reviewed research in this area shows that as alcohol access is increased, so too are alcohol’s harms. In Utah, we care about the health and safety of Utahns as much as we care about tourism and industry profits. Until the special interests in the alcohol industry acknowledge and get on board with that, Utah’s liquor laws are likely to remain largely unchanged.
The last issue is the so-called “aid-in-dying” bill. Gov. Herbert correctly recognized the possibility that such a policy “morph[s] into really a right to suicide.” The law should not encourage a culture of death — seeking out ways to help individuals end their life, or encouraging “direct killing,” as described by Princeton professor Robert George in “Conscience and Its Enemies.” Rather, the law ought to strengthen and encourage a culture of life where all forms of human life are recognized as containing an inherent dignity that ought to be protected and respected.
In short, we ought to follow Robert George’s counsel: “Policies or practices that are implicitly premised on belief in a right to suicide or assisted suicide or euthanasia should be roundly rejected.”
Policies such as medical marijuana, alcohol control and assisted suicide directly impact the culture of a society even as they reflect it. They impact culture by transmitting messages that are often quite subtle to members of the community (especially younger ones) about what the community thinks is most important and what is not important about the decisions of life. They reflect culture in that they show what we value as a community, or alternatively, what we do not value.
And in these critical aspects of policy and culture in Utah, elected leaders like Gov. Herbert are getting it right — to the benefit of all Utahns.
Derek Monson is public policy director at the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute.