Morality, Marijuana, and Legislation

A comment I made recently on Facebook about marijuana prohibition brought some very negative feedback, so I thought I would elaborate on the subject a bit. I’ll also reflect on the nature of morality in legislation and legislation in public life, because that’s foundational to my view.

I’ll start this off by pointing out that I’m a Christian theologian whose research focuses on ethics. I care about ethics and morality a great deal. It seems that when people see that I am in favour of legalizing marijuana, they immediately think that I am therefore immoral; that entails a whole lot of assumptions.

Morality in Legislation

The first major assumption is that morality and legality go hand in hand. That is not the case, and I’m not sure it ever has been outside of theocratic nations. I’m sure we get the idea that immoral things should be illegal by reading Leviticus, but we don’t live in a theocracy like ancient Israel did. Our law is often based on morals, but it is just as often based on social and political goals, needs (e.g., funding needs leads to taxes), and bad precedents (i.e., a lot of legislation is in place to clean up other legislation). Not everything that is against the law is necessarily immoral, and not everything that is immoral is illegal (e.g., adultery).

In order to have just legislation it must be both just and enforceable, and must not have unintended consequences or results that cause harm. A law that is itself unjust (e.g., discriminatory, exploitative, or immoral) should not exist. But a just law that cannot hope to be enforced is also wrong, as it undermines the value of the law in general and sets up mixed expectations regarding law enforcement. A law that is only enforced part of the time is usually unjust because it lets some people get away with it while punishing others; which is not to say that having speed limits is unjust, but if every other person who was pulled over for speeding wasn’t ticketed, we’d be concerned about fairness.  But even a just law that is equally enforced can be unjust when it has unintended consequences that cause harm; this was the case with the ban on abortions, which led to thousands of women being injured or killed by botched back-alley abortions, and that’s why the law was struck down.

So laws should be moral, but are not in place to enforce morality. Morality, by its very nature, cannot be enforced. To force someone to be good robs them of the choice to be good, which is the valuable part of being good. Even God does not enforce morality.

Legality Is Not an Endorsement

There are a number of immoral things that are not illegal, and a number of illegal things that are not immoral. At the same time, something being legal does not necessarily mean that it’s something you should do. Smoking cigarettes is legal for people over a certain age, in spite of the fact that we’ve long known that doing so is a great way to shorten your life span and cost the healthcare system an incredible amount of money in the process. Smoking cigarettes is legal because making cigarettes illegal would only lead to a greater illegal trade in cigarettes, because as we know, people have difficulty quitting. Tobacco is relatively easy to grow, cigarettes are easy to roll, and the product is relatively easy to smuggle; law enforcement is not able to control cigarettes sufficiently to make it worth our while to spend money attempting the task, when it is easier instead to make them legally available within certain parameters – such as being illegal to advertise, and illegal to buy under a certain age.

I do not smoke marijuana (although I did as a teenager), and unless you have a medicinal reason, I don’t suggest you start. That said, marijuana is easy to grow and smuggle, and the current laws haven’t stopped anyone from using it, so why are we spending so much trying to control something we can’t control?

The Unintended Effect of Prohibition

 

The current laws against drugs in Canada and the US haven’t stopped us from having some of the highest rates of drug use in the world, but they’ve cost us exorbitant amounts of money and thousands of lives. This is because the absence of a legal market for drugs means that all drugs go through the black market, enriching and empowering drug cartels and biker gangs, leading to gang wars and other crimes. We saw this with alcohol prohibition, which led to the rise of the mafia in the US, and the same things are happening with the prohibition of marijuana now.

The strange thing is that such a system actually makes it easier to get the very thing we’re trying to control. When drugs are not legally available, their value goes up; this gives people incentive to grow or deal drugs. As drug dealers get better at bringing drugs into the market, the cost of those drugs goes down, making them more accessible. To keep profits up, drug cartels need to make it up in volume, so they bring in even more drugs. This results in illegal drugs being both accessible and affordable, with no restrictions on who can buy them unless the buyer gets caught by the police. There is also no quality control in place, which often leads to joints being laced with harder, more addictive drugs (marijuana on its own is impossible to overdose on, and has a very low rate of addiction; but marijuana laced with other drugs can be very dangerous).

My View of Marijuana

The Green Party of Canada has looked at the data and saw that making marijuana legal would a) no longer enrich gangs and cartels, b) generate $3 billion or more per year in tax revenue that could be spent on healthcare and education about drugs and their negative effects, c) make marijuana less accessible for kids and safer for adults, and d) save us a lot of resources as we no longer attempt to fight battles that cannot be won. Also, the data on legalization suggests that we won’t actually see a significant rise in marijuana use if it is legalized, and that over time we’ll probably see those numbers fall.

I am not a recreational marijuana advocate, but I am an advocate of legalizing marijuana. The available data says that the best solution to most of our problems with marijuana is to legalize it, and the risks associated with doing so are small. Legalization will not stop the medical issues association with it, but it will raise money to help pay for those medical issues, and it will also take drug use out of the legal conversation and allow it to be a health conversation, which makes support to get people off of drugs much more accessible – because if you’re going to go to jail if you admit to using drugs, you’ll probably never seek help to get off of drugs.

Legislation and Ethical Living

Just as legalizing marijuana does not constitute an endorsement of using marijuana, so too does it not require anyone to use it or endorse it. I come from a religious background in which smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are (in some cases explicitly) forbidden and considered immoral, in spite of the fact that they are legal; the Catholic Church does not share that view, and I’ve met chain-smoking priests who thoroughly enjoy a good beer or wine. Gay marriage is legal in Canada, and some churches willingly perform gay marriages, but there is nothing in the law that forces any church to bless a gay marriage.

We Christians need to have a thorough conversation about what it means to live out our faith in public. I would argue that a Christian ethic necessarily involves exceeding the requirements of the law, being better than the law demands that we be; and that if we make the demands of Christian discipleship into law we not only end up pushing our religion on everyone else (something Jesus himself refused to do – he went out of his way to scare off people who were attempting to follow him but not counting the cost of doing so!), but also undermining the role of Christians in society as a people who exceed the demands of the law.

Put another way, I’ll paraphrase Jesus, Paul, and James all at once: “So you don’t partake of illegal drugs? Even the pagans do that.” Christians who are concerned that taking drugs is immoral should refuse to take even legal drugs, and enjoy the ability to take an actual ethical stance rather than simply doing the bare minimum of following the law. Paul’s point about the law and not being under the law anymore was that true Christian freedom is not coerced – not by God, and certainly not by the state – and Christian freedom is what theologians call “freedom for” (as opposed to “freedom from”); that is, we have the freedom to make good choices even when we are not compelled to do so. This is a powerful freedom that we’re missing out on so long as we insist that all things that are immoral should also be illegal.

Conclusion

I hope that my position on marijuana legalization is clear, but I’m happy to answer questions about it. I also hope my understanding of legislation and morality is useful to you. A majority of the residents of Provencher are Christians of a variety of stripes, but we all need to think carefully about how religious faith and ethics interact with laws and public life, particularly if that is going to influence the way we vote!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1

On the Possibility of a Nonviolent Nation

Last night Karen Ridd opened up our lecture series with “Swimming Upstream: Being Nonviolent in a Violent World.” Her presentation was by turns enchanting, engaging, challenging, and inspiring. One thing that came up several times, perhaps given that I was hosting the event, is how nonviolence relates to a national stance on ISIS and foreign policy in general. I’ve spent much of today thinking about this. It’s wonderful for individuals to practice nonviolence, but is it possible as a national policy?

Karen talked about the distinction between using nonviolent action and being nonviolent as a way of life (there are many people who would, say, go on strike, without actually committing to nonviolence in any other situation, much less as an ongoing approach to conflict), but in terms of actually executing a nonviolent approach I think it can happen in two ways. First, we can choose to make ourselves weak so that we cannot do any harm; and second, we can maintain our power while exercising restraint. Either can be done by an individual, and either can be done by a nation. Let’s take a look.

My favourite exemplar in regard to most important issues is Jesus, and this case is no different. Jesus made himself “weak” by taking on human flesh in all of its frailty: the God of the universe, eternal spirit, became vulnerable to the elements, hunger, abuse, and even death. He chose weakness in order to empathize and express solidarity with the weak. Vulnerability is a powerful aspect of nonviolent action; Karen’s stories about the effective use of nonviolent direct action were almost all about little old ladies. Nonviolent action tends to rely on exposing injustice, and there is little that is more obviously unjust than violent treatment of the vulnerable. In that way, choosing vulnerability can create a degree of safety while at the same time appealing to the best in our opponents, humanizing them even while we humanize ourselves by exposing our vulnerability.

At the same time, while Jesus became vulnerable he remained incredibly powerful. When he was arrested by an entire detachment of soldiers, Peter pulled out a sword to try to defend him; Jesus not only told Peter to stand down (and healed the soldier Peter had injured), but reminded Peter that he could have called on a legion of angels at any moment. During his arrest, his trial, and even his execution, Jesus retained the power to destroy his enemies, and yet chose to forgive them instead. His concern for the well-being of even his enemies led him to exercise restraint on that power. That’s what made Jesus’ refusal to use violence so powerful: weakness in itself is no virtue, but exercising restraint most certainly is.

So it’s possible for an individual to choose nonviolence either by choosing to be vulnerable or weak, or by exercising careful restraint of the power he or she has. But what about a nation? Is it possible to be nonviolent in either way? Not only is it possible, but there are clear examples of both.

Costa Rica has not had a standing army since 1948. They have a small armed guard probably more similar to the RCMP than to an army, and they contribute to international peacekeeping, but that’s it. As a nation, they have chosen not to have a military. They have made themselves vulnerable. Since then they have not had any war, even civil war, in spite of the revolutions that occurred throughout the region in the 1980s. Some people may write this off as a benefit of being allies with nations like the US and Canada whose military capabilities make up for Costa Rica’s lack, but perhaps that’s part of the point: a nation without a significant armed force must use other foreign policy tools, and making allies with other nations is an important one. If Canada were to reduce our military capabilities we would be less quick to enter into wars and would rely much more on diplomacy and trade to settle our disputes. By making ourselves vulnerable in one way, we could build on other strengths (and frankly, we’ve always been better at diplomacy than at warfare).

The other example is Switzerland. As gun advocates love to point out, nearly everyone in Switzerland has a gun and knows how to use it. This is because military service is mandatory in Switzerland (for males starting at 19). The amazing thing is, even though every single (male) Swiss citizen is (at least in theory) ready to go to war (their military force per capita is the second largest in the world, after the Israeli Defence Forces), they haven’t violently participated in a war in almost 150 years. Even during the World Wars, their participation took the form of economic and nonviolent tactics. They have an international reputation for neutrality, and therefore as a place to meet for discussion rather than battle; and they contribute to peacekeeping efforts around the world. They pose no threat to anyone in spite of their great power, and they present the world with opportunities for nonviolent conflict resolution.

The Green Party’s plan is somewhere between these two models. We would reduce Canada’s military to a functional defensive force, redirecting funding and personnel toward new forces that focus on disaster relief, and restoring our place as one of the main contributors to the UN Peacekeeping forces. As climate change gets worse, environmental issues will spark conflict. Clean water reserves are depleting worldwide as glaciers recede and sea levels rise, for example. Canada’s ability to respond quickly with humanitarian aid and disaster relief will help prevent conflicts from arising in such situations; and our Peacekeepers will help provide security and space for diplomacy to work in situations where conflict does arise. At the same time, our lack of a significant standing army will give credibility to our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, and nobody will suspect ulterior motives or fear a humanitarian mission may turn into an invasion force.

Our ability to do good in the world and humanize others is our greatest defence. Promoting peace is more powerful than the ability to win wars. Through a combination of deliberate vulnerability and restraint, and a refocusing on meeting the needs of others, Canadian foreign policy can be nonviolent in very significant ways without leaving Canada defenceless. Then we can restore the reputation that I grew up with, our former international renown for promoting peace.

Join us next Friday for our second lecture in the series: “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” with Wendy Peterson!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1

On the State of Politics in Canada

Canadians have a reputation for kindness and diplomacy…and then an election happens. If someone were to judge Canadians by their political advertisements, we’d have a reputation for being passive-aggressive (“he’s just not ready“) and corrupt (“enough“). This election isn’t the worst by a long shot; I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at how few attack ads there are this year, considering the intensity of the issues at hand (Senators on trial, veterans attacking Conservatives, etc). For too many years now, we’ve had even more negative campaign ads.

But if you did judge Canadians as passive-aggressive and corrupt, you’d be wrong. Canadians are sick of that kind of politics. The problem is, we’ve forgotten that there’s any other kind. Rather than calling on our political parties to clean it up, many people have disengaged altogether. Too many.

I don’t mean that people just aren’t voting. I mean that people actually recoil, physically, when politics is brought up. Everyone is usually happy to share an opinion, but try asking someone for a signature on a petition or nomination form sometime. Some people simply refuse to participate; for others, their eyes widen in surprise and then narrow in distrust, sometimes with a hint of panic. They feel overwhelmed by the very notion of getting involved, and want nothing to do with it. If you think I’m exaggerating, come canvassing with me. (And before you say it – yes, they recoil before they know who I am or what party I represent!)

What’s worse than individuals who don’t want to participate in simple, nonpartisan political actions is when the public square is closed to the conversation. I’ll give you two examples from my riding, Provencher.

On Canada Day, a political day if ever there was one, I was at a public event. Since there were thousands of people there, I had brought my clipboard with signature pages. Every would-be candidate has to collect 100 signatures in order to get on the ballot; the signatures “consent to candidacy”, which means that the people who sign it agree that the would-be candidate has the right to run. It’s entirely non-partisan, because the signature doesn’t imply endorsement of the candidate’s party – only the candidate’s right to be a candidate. Even so, I thought it would be professional for me to ask permission before collecting any signatures, and was directed to a man setting up a microphone; he was the manager of the venue. His response was that they’d really prefer if I didn’t collect any signatures; they wanted it to be a “non-political” place. Sure, I said, wondering what he meant by that. Then he finished setting up the microphone, and introduced Conservative MP Ted Falk, who gave a speech. This was followed by the Progressive Conservative MLA, the Mayor of the city, the Reeve of the surrounding municipality, and the Reeve of the next municipality. Apparently what he meant by “non-political” was “non-partisan”, which itself was based on the assumption that anything I had to say while collecting signatures might stir up tension (not to mention the assumption that the MP, MLA and even municipal politicians would have nothing partisan to say).

The next example is even more clear-cut. One of the places we had been hoping to set up a table to promote our campaign was at local farmer’s markets throughout the riding. We plan to set up a table with a few brochures, a few postcards, and some buttons and cloth tote bags to give away; maybe we’d get a few volunteers to sign up, or collect a few donations. Unfortunately, at least one of the directors of the largest farmer’s market in the riding has denied us access; they will not allow us to rent space at the farmer’s market for our table, citing concerns that we would be “bad-mouthing the other parties.” My first thought is “have they heard of the Green Party? We don’t do that.” Unfortunately, at least at this point, this director has not spoken to me directly.

It would appear that politics of any kind is not welcome in Steinbach. It’s a dirty word. It creates tension, fosters conflict, scares people off. This is not the fault of the people I’ve mentioned above, it’s the result of years of negative campaigning. Politicians: we’ve done that. We need to undo it.

There are eight weeks of campaigning left. I challenge Ted Falk, Terry Hayward, and whoever runs for the NDP: let’s run positive campaigns, with no attack ads. That means no more “Just Not Ready” ads, no more “Wait, What?” ads, no more “Enough” ads. There’s plenty of time and space for criticism of the other parties; we don’t need sound bites and spin to do it. Join me in pledging to keep all of our ads about…us. Us as candidates, and the platforms we’re running under. This election is about giving people a choice between us and our ideas, not about tearing each other down. Maybe we can show the people of Provencher that politics isn’t all about divisiveness and conflict after all. Maybe there’s hope for public engagement and an open public square.

Provencher, don’t be afraid to engage. Ted, Terry and I are all nice guys who actually get along well enough, even if we disagree about how to best represent you. Give us a call, invite us over, and get to know us; we’ll talk to your neighbours too. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!

Your Green candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff_Background1