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.
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!