Fresno may soon join the rest of California in making cannabis commercially available. So let’s reconsider the morality of marijuana.
The basic argument for legalization — apart from generating revenue through taxation and reducing prison time for drug users — is libertarian. The legalization of marijuana is part of a rising tide of libertarianism with regard to issues such as abortion, physician assisted suicide, pornography, and gay marriage. Libertarians allow adults to do whatever they want, as long as they are not harming others.
Marijuana use can harm others: through second-hand smoke, driving under the influence, and so on. Libertarians should want to find ways to minimize those harms. But for the most part libertarians want to leave people alone, even if this means allowing people to make their own mistakes.
Paternalists disagree. Paternalists want to prevent people from harming themselves. They worry that people are not virtuous enough to choose well. They think people can be profoundly mistaken about what is good for them — and should be prevented from misusing their liberty. Libertarians reject this as nosy and intrusive.
The libertarian argument has prevailed in California with regard to marijuana legalization. But the question still remains as to whether cannabis consumption is a wise use of freedom or a mistake. Said differently, is there anything wrong with getting high?
The natural law tradition provides an argument against getting high. The Catholic Church teaches that recreational drug use is a “grave offense” that “inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.”
This argument has been made in philosophical terms by Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, who argue that recreational drug use is an abuse of the body. Their critique of drugs is connected with a conservative sexual ethic. They suggest an analogy between masturbation and drug use. These authors say that when people masturbate or get high, the body is used as an instrument to be manipulated in order to obtain pleasure. They say that masturbators and drug users express “contempt” for their bodies.
Hedonists see things differently. The hedonist’s goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This means that hedonists will want to avoid the downside of getting high. If marijuana leads to a hangover or addiction, that’s a problem. But defenders of marijuana often argue that marijuana has less of a downside than alcohol.
The comparison with booze often arises in discussions of pot. If wine is fine, what’s wrong with weed? Lee and George allow alcohol use. They say it is OK, if used as a social lubricant to enhance social interactions. But there is a difference, they argue, between social drinking and getting drunk.
Of course, the same thing could be said for cannabis. Some sad stoners may hide out alone in darkened rooms. But marijuana is also a social drug. And there is a cannabis culture that includes Bob Marley, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson.
This reminds us that culture matters. Alcohol is the drug of choice for mainstream culture, which takes the consumption of beer and wine for granted. But marijuana is (or was until recently) counter cultural, a drug for Rastafarians, rappers and hippie cowboys. A cultural analysis of marijuana shows how competing views of the drug reflect our thinking about race, culture, and class.
This cultural divide cuts into our thinking about consciousness. Authors such as Dr. Andrew Weil have discussed the difference between the stoned and the straight mind. Philosophers, scientists, lawyers, and mathematicians celebrate rational thought, logic, and problem-solving. Cultures and careers that value quick wit and critical thinking will tend to emphasize sobriety and what Weil calls “straight” thinking.
But artists and mystics view things differently. Cannabis has been used to free up artistic creativity and stimulate mystical experience. For the artist or mystic, there is value in in the stoned mind. Instead of logic and calculation, mysticism values intuition, sensuality, and creative insight.
These differences in culture, religion and consciousness run deep. That’s why the libertarian solution is best. We’re going to disagree about the morality of marijuana. But as long as harm to others can be minimized, adults should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to get stoned or stay straight.