Is Smoking Pot Immoral? Should it be Illegal?
At 31, I’ve yet to partake in the ganja. It was ever-present as I came of age, and the peer pressure was often strong and direct. But though I did my share of underage drinking, I always resisted Mary Jane. It was just something I vowed to avoid when I was a kid. Plus, I got some practice doing the Nancy Reagan thing in jr. high. Actually had one of those cliche’ encounters with a “pusher” at a football game: “Hey kid—wanna buy some weed?” “No,” with a nervous chuckle. “OK—don’t you tell anybody I asked…” That gave me the confidence to say no again and again, and besides—I got my rebellious kicks elsewhere. Once fully into manhood, there were the random drug tests in the Air Force and Air Guard to worry about, or to just use as an excuse when friends offered. “Can’t man, drug test.” I had a brief window of opportunity when I left the military in 2004, but I figured if I’d made it that long, no reason to start. Not that I needed another reason, but with a new son, the role model thing keeps me on the straight and narrow. Whether the fact that I’ve never smoked makes a difference for what I have to say below, you decide. Just thought I’d share in the name of full disclosure. And thank goodness Michael Phelps got caught smoking pot—gives me an excuse to write about it!
First things first, let’s distinguish the legal from the moral. Just because something is legally forbidden doesn’t mean it’s immoral, and just because something is legally allowed doesn’t mean it’s moral. Good law tracks morality, but the two realms are definitely distinct. For example, for a time, interracial marriage was legally forbidden—didn’t make it immoral. And, for a time, slavery was of course legally permissible—didn’t make it moral.
This means that the common argument that smoking pot is wrong because it’s illegal falls short. As members of a fairly (though not fully) just democracy, we all have some moral obligation to abide by democratically enacted laws. But that obligation itself can’t establish the inherent moral permissibility or impermissibility of an act. It can give us a moral reason to obey the law, but it can’t by itself morally condemn smoking pot, any more than it can by itself morally condemn interracial marriage or morally endorse slavery.
So beware of this bad (though common) argument:
Mary: Smoking pot is immoral because it’s illegal.
Jane: But why should it be illegal?
Mary: Because it’s immoral.
Jane: But why do you think it’s immoral?
Mary: Because it’s illegal.
Jane: Dude, you’re killing my buzz. Why is it illegal, again?
Mary needs to provide independent reasons why smoking pot is immoral—she’s essentially saying that it should be illegal because it is illegal, which is of course circular. Do any good arguments exist? Here are some candidates to consider. Smoking pot is immoral because…
Because it’s addictive. Since lots of activities are addictive that nobody but the Mormons think are immoral, this isn’t enough. Activities need to be something more than addictive to be immoral, otherwise blogging is immoral. (And that’s called a reductio ad absurdum, boys and girls.)
Because it’s addictive AND harmful. This is worth exploring, but “harmful” needs to be unpacked. Does pot steal your soul like heroine? No. Does it pickle your liver like booze? No. Does it tend to make you slothful, a little slower upstairs than you would be otherwise, rob you of some degree of motivation? For many users, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we have to say yes. Everybody knows a “burnout” when they meet one—they’re just a little slower, denser, thicker than the rest of us. Does making yourself dumber and less outgoing than you’d otherwise be constitute harm? Maybe so. Becoming less industrious, less bright, and lazier all seem moves in the wrong direction. But even if this constitutes some degree of harm, the bigger question is, is this enough to render smoking pot immoral? After all, you’re only harming yourself. Indeed, some independent types would say that it’s morally permissible to do whatever you like to yourself (even kill yourself), so long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Since smoking pot only harms the user, they argue, it’s cool. But they neglect those with whom we have relationships—the loved ones our habits can affect. If pot essentially alters who you are, makes you less responsive, more socially withdrawn, more dim-witted, then since all of these factors play into how you interact with others, and probably for the worse, that counts as a form of harm to others. (I can hear the moans and groans already. I didn’t expect to be this negative, I swear! That’s just how it’s working out.) Now, that doesn’t mean it’s harm enough to render the activity immoral—we don’t have an obligation to be maximally good to our loved ones, just adequately good. It just means the issue isn’t as clear cut as some would have us think. I’ve seen how drugs can alter a person’s personality, and I’ve seen those changes hurt relationships. In fact, I’ve seen it lead to suicide twice, which definitely harms those left behind. LOTS of compounding factors pushed the people in question THAT far—and they weren’t just smoking an occasional joint—they were on some really bad stuff. But the point is that substance abuse played a role in harming people other than the abusers themselves. Could weed by itself cause such a momentous collapse? I doubt it. Laziness and dunderheadedness, yeah, but not suicide. But what if it led to drugs that could…
Because though pot itself does only insignificant harm, it’s a gateway to harder drugs that cause great harm. Interpreted as a blanket statement, this is pretty easy to shoot down. EVERYONE who smokes a joint in college doesn’t wind up a crack head. But some people certainly do. What are the numbers? I dunno. But for the sake of argument, say that 15% of those who smoke pot go on to something much harder—something we all agree causes great harm to both the abuser and their loved ones. Is that reason enough to denounce smoking pot itself as immoral? Maybe so. If you recognize that an activity poses a 15% chance of eventually causing great harm to yourself and your loved ones, you probably have a strong moral obligation to abstain from that activity. As the level of harm and the likelihood of it occurring increases, so too does the obligation to abstain. So if a person has a family history of hard substance abuse (which means they’re probably genetically predisposed to become hard substance abusers themselves), are young and irresponsible, are already addicted to cigarettes and liquor, out of respect for themselves and their loved ones, they have a pretty strong moral obligation to stay far, far away from anything that might lead them down that path, including smoking a quick bowl. But on the other hand, a reasonably intelligent adult with impeccable self-control and no family history of abuse and a social support network to identify and head off potential addiction might have a relatively weak obligation to not smoke weed. In fact, it might be clearly morally permissible in some cases. Point is, the risk of abuse and subsequent harm is probably always there, but it comes in differing degrees, which then produces differing obligations in differing degrees.
Conclusions: Those seem to be the strongest points against smoking weed, and after careful analysis, it looks like we can’t make an across-the-board statement that it’s always good or that it’s always bad. As with most moral questions, careful thought leads us to a carefully tailored position. Perhaps all we can say is that smoking pot is more or less immoral depending on the person smoking it and their circumstances (likelihood to move on to harder stuff, frequency of smoking which might exacerbate the negative personality effects, degree of responsibilities to others, etc.). We can say that it almost always causes some personality change, but so do lots of things. I do mixed martial arts once a week, and though it relieves some stress, it probably makes me a little cockier than I’d otherwise be. That makes me more apt to be frank with strangers, to be blunt with students, and to sometimes come across as, well, a bit of a prick (sorry!). That’s a form of harm—I’m more ornery than I’d otherwise be—but I don’t think it’s enough to override the satisfaction I get from physical competition, the increased confidence from knowing how to better defend myself, the camaraderie at the gym, etc. And beyond that, smoking pot probably makes some people better! Artists swear it makes them more creative, and hey, if you need a joint after work to keep from kicking your dog, yelling at your wife and beating your kids, by all means, spark up! You probably need some therapy too, but in the meantime, everybody’s probably better off if you sneak a little smoke. (Surprisingly, a person in this case may even have a moral obligation to smoke…)
Which brings us to our last question—should smoking pot be illegal?
Like most things, it should probably be heavily regulated, but not categorically banned. (Even killing, the worst of all sins, isn’t categorically banned—it’s OK to kill in self-defense.) Especially since that’s how we treat alcohol. From what I’ve read and heard, the socially destructive effects of alcohol are by far greater than those of marijuana. Drunks start fights and drive on the sidewalk. Stoners just play Mario Kart and eat Cheetos. The likelihood of developing an addiction or abusing harder substances is probably comperable, and so too are the personality effects (alcohol kills brain cells too, unfortunately…). If we’re going to allow but regulate alcohol, logical consistency demands that we allow but regulate weed. Plus, legalizing marijuana would do a world of good to stop the escalating violence at the Mexican border. That’s a whole lot of murdering for no good reason. Oh, and think of the jobs Winston-Salem could create with their newly renovated factory! A funky new stimulus package up Obama’s sleeve, perhaps?
So there you go. Smoking weed is immoral to the extent that the person smoking harms themselves and others, and moral to the extent that it benefits themselves and others (on whole), which depends on factors unique to each case. The same could be said of binge eating or drinking beer or even watching college football, all three of which I’ve done to excess to the detriment of others at one time or another (just in case anybody thought I was getting too holier than thou). And given that weed’s probably no more harmful (probably even less harmful) than alcohol, though it should definitely be regulated (forbidden for high-risk hardcore abusers and reserved for competent, responsible, over 21 adults—sorry kids!), it shouldn’t be categorically illegal. But of course, I’ve never smoked it, so what do I know.