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Question of the Day

Jeff wrote me to ask what I think about slashdot’s question of the day.

Question: Is it better to abide by the rules until they’re changed or help speed the change by breaking them?

Interesting. The question on slashdot was clearly generic, but for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that we’re talking about drug policy.
The question itself raises several questions:

  1. It assumes that changing the rules is a good idea. Of course, we believe that it is.
  2. The word “better” could be interpreted to mean “more moral” or “more efficacious.”
  3. “abide by the rules until they’re changed” — you could do that and wait forever with no change.
  4. “help speed the change by breaking them” — there’s no guarantee that breaking them will have any effect.

I’ve often heard people comment on a particular situation (such as someone dying in a drug raid, or getting an unusually long prison sentence): “Hey, I’m for changing the laws, but as long as pot is illegal, it’s their fault for breaking the law,” or I hear “Sure, marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, but it’s against the law. Case closed.” I definitely do not agree with those viewpoints. People use drugs, prohibition is unjust and dangerous, so regardless of “legality,” I feel for those nonviolent lawbreakers who were unlucky enough to get caught. And the idea of simply promoting “abide by the rules until they’re changed” thus seems unrealistic, callous and cruel.
Yet as far as choosing an efficacious approach to “speeding the change,” I’m not sure breaking the law is completely relevant in this situation. Millions break the drug laws on a regular basis, and it’s not to change the law. Most people who smoke pot are not trying to make a statement, nor do most people consider drug use to be a statement for change. So simply breaking the law to speed the change seems unrealistic, unless you consider the notion that if enough people break the law, the law will collapse under the weight of its unpopularity (and your lawbreaking added to that effect).
Perhaps breaking the rules in some kind of public way would speed change. Civil disobedience is a time-honored method of effecting change of unjust laws or actions. The non-violent public act of sacrifice (often risking freedom through arrest) can generate public awareness and sympathy (the public can get a feeling for the genuine beliefs of the protester since the protester is seen to have nothing to gain and much to lose personally through his/her civil disobedience). Now, I don’t think that smoking a joint on the street corner is going to work. It would have to be big, organized, and publicized. In a way, hempfests have been a form of civil disobedience, and even medical marijuana systems — as they conflict with federal law — are a form of civil disobedience.
What do you think?

Is it better to abide by the rules until they’re changed or help speed the change by breaking them?

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