Stoned or Straight? Let Adults Decide for Themselves

Fresno Bee, January 24, 2020

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.

Marijuana Morality

Proposition 64: Discerning the pros and cons of legalized marijuana

Fresno Bee, October 28, 2016

There are difficult questions to confront in thinking about Proposition 64. If the polls are right, the pot proposition will likely pass. And if it passes, we will need to think carefully about the morality of marijuana.

Libertarians argue that adults should be free to get high. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, has long advocated marijuana reform.

Others oppose intoxication on principle. This view is often based in religion. Mormons, Mennonites and Muslims – as well as Buddhists and Baptists – generally oppose alcohol and other intoxicants. Religious folks tend to think that drug-induced rapture is a false idol leading to immoral behavior.

But some traditions do use drugs to achieve ecstasy and insight. An ancient proverb states “in vino veritas,” in wine there is truth. Uninhibited drunks may speak the truth and some find enlightenment in their cups.

William James, the great American philosopher, explained, “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is, in fact, the great exciter of the Yes function in man. … It makes him, for the moment, one with truth.”

James described the “ontological intuition” disclosed by various drugs. That’s fancy language for the sense of wonder and harmony that some drugs elicit. Marijuana often has been associated with spirituality and higher consciousness – by Rastafarians, Indian mystics, Sufis and hippies.


Puritanical types argue that chemical nirvana is cheap and phony. It is debatable whether any drug can put you in touch with God. But there is no denying that human beings pursue altered states of consciousness.

Sober thought and rational discernment are important goods – often in short supply. But man does not live by sobriety alone. We also need escapes and relaxations.

In our culture, alcohol is the drug of choice. A glass of wine at dinner is part of haute cuisine. Art and music often are enjoyed with wine or a cocktail. And beer goes with sports. Libertarians argue for expanding our choices.

But the freedom to alter consciousness runs up against our responsibility to others. Do we want stoned parents – or drunk parents, for that matter – raising children? Impaired driving is an important concern. Drunken drivers kill about 28 people per day. Marijuana legalization likely will increase traffic fatalities.

7ac6746876d20bac10c7ec9c5c7b510d664e5843e8d57a14e4a2f2751c0a1440The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws offers a different opinion. NORML suggests that stoned drivers are aware of their impairment and slow down, focusing more on driving. They claim that drunken drivers are more reckless than stoned drivers.

This is an unlikely story. And even if it is true, legal pot will cause traffic snarls as would-be Cheeches and Chongs creep along in the fast lane. There is no denying that stoned drivers will cause accidents.

A Libertarian will reply that despite drunken driving, alcohol remains legal. From this point of view, what is needed is regulation and education, not prohibition. Self-driving cars and better public transportation also would help.


If marijuana becomes legal in California, as is likely, it is still worth asking whether decent and responsible people should partake. We will need social norms to guide appropriate pot behavior – a guidebook of marijuana manners.

Our culture – our economy, our educational system and our democratic process – is based upon the presumption of sobriety and rationality. Intoxicated workers, teachers and voters are dangerous. If weed is legalized, decent people should only use it in moderation and at appropriate times.

We have a system of social norms governing alcohol. The cocktail hour begins only after work. Responsible drinkers drink moderately, imbibing one or two drinks a day – and not every day. They recognize that alcoholism is a risk. And they understand that drunken driving is wrong.

We do not have a similar system of social norms governing pot use. Stoner culture is often excessive and irresponsible. Snoop Dogg is not a role model.

If pot is legalized, we will need moral guidance on basic questions of where, when and how much. Moderate marijuana use has not been addressed in the mainstream. If Propositon 64 passes, we will need someone other than Cheech, Chong or Snoop to give us advice.

This is probably a lot for a stoned voter to keep in mind. And that may be a reason for further skepticism about whether legalizing pot is good for our democracy.

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