A Paradox in Overcriminalization
New Criminal law Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 2011
35 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2011 Last revised: 17 Mar 2011
Date Written: December 22, 2010
Given that one of the central roles of political philosophy and criminal theory is illuminating the borders of justified state punishment, the modern crisis of overcriminalization is a painful defeat. Generations of legal theory, grounded in liberalism, has done little to stem the tide of criminal law and the explosion of criminal punishment.
One notable island of decriminalization has been the retreat of criminal punishment surrounding marijuana consumption. With the combination of medical marijuana regimes, reduction of punishment, and halting steps toward full decriminalization, marijuana stands in stark contrast to the highly visible war on drugs that has driven much contemporary overcriminalization.
This piece argues that opponents of overcriminalization have much to learn from the functional decriminalization of marijuana. Marijuana decriminalization has not been successful because of a swing in public attitudes about marijuana use. Rather, decriminalization is possible because advocates can marshal agreement across philosophical starting points, bringing both liberals and nonliberals into consensus. This groundswell demonstrates that legal theorists concerned about containing state power must look beyond liberal theories.
Most importantly, this example reveals that legal theorists interested in turning back the tide of overcriminalization must do more than wait for areas of Rawlsian overlapping consensus; they must reach out to generate consensus with Rawlsian conjecture by viewing law not only from the liberal vantage point but from the nonliberal’s perspective as well.
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