Governor Christie of New Jersey recently objected to extending minors’ access to medical marijuana, claiming it would be a slippery slope to widespread abuse by minors. He is not alone; slippery slope arguments have frequently been used by opponents to reforming the drug laws. In its most extreme form, this argument claims that any relaxation of the drug laws will inevitably lead to a nation of violent, homeless drug addicts with everyone threatened by ruthless cartels. What is this argument and how does it work?
First year law students fall in love with it because it is easy to make, but they quickly become disenchanted because it is not effective. It falls in the third part of the old trial lawyer’s advice to novices: “When the law is against you, pound the facts; when the facts are against you, pound the law; when both the law and the facts are against you, pound the table.” A slippery slope argument is nothing more than pounding on the table while shouting doom and destruction.
The problem is that life itself is a slippery slope. A baby emerges from the birth canal unto a slope where merely standing is a perilous adventure, and a life-long struggle follows. Civilization is even riskier: imagine trying to support the population of Los Angeles or Mumbai using only the tools and techniques of humanity’s distant past – or of trying to feed New York if the electricity failed for a month. As the Red Queen told Alice, here you have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place.
The only choices are to scramble upward as fast as possible or to slide down to oblivion. Even if one found a flat spot upon which to stand, it would soon erode out from under him. And no safety net is waiting. Change is inevitable, but one can choose between up or down.
If someone presents a slippery slope argument, gently suggest that he is already on a slippery slope and that standing still is not an option. Drug policy is already on a downward slope. If nothing is done – or if only more of the same is done, the slide will accelerate into more deaths and disease, more and fuller and more brutal prisons, more people made derelict by unnecessary criminal records, more corruption, and more violent gangs. More and more money will be spent to accomplish less good. The only route out of this precarious position is to brave the slope and find a better route leading up the slope of progress.
Progress up the slope will not be easy. Some parts of the path will be more slippery than others – even scary. Patches will be slick or composed of loose, rolling rocks, steep cliffs will interpose themselves. But all of these obstacles can be overcome. But the alternative is even worse. Society cannot be allowed to fall into the abyss simply because leaders are afraid to face the future. If leaders will not lead, then they must be pushed from behind. The future is open, but only to those daring and willing to climb to reach it.
(May 27 – Happy Birthday to me!)