Friday, June 6, 2014

Should Marijuana Be Legal?

Wielding Power has published its fifth issue: Should Marijuana Be Legal?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Joe Katz
Finalist: Tom Cantine
Finalist: Mahmoud Jalloh

Please use the comments to continue the conversation. What do you think the answer is? What are your thoughts on the essays in the issue? Don't be shy!

As long as there aren't too many comments, I will try to respond to them. The winner and finalists may also stop by from time to time this month.

[A few points of order.

First, please be respectful. Imagine this is a conversation after dinner among friends. We're all trying to get to truth together. We want your true, honest thoughts, but ugliness can sometimes emerge when people hide behind computer screens. That has no place here. This is not the place for ad hominem attacks or nasty takedowns. These are controversial, and sometimes emotionally charged, questions, so we're not all going to agree. But respectful disagreement can be profoundly illuminating.

Second, feel free to use a pseudonym if you'd prefer. If you do, please pick a name that's distinguishable (like 'squirrel'). If we have several people called 'anonymous', it's harder to follow the conversation.]


  1. Joe, why do you think marijuana should be one of the 'minority rights' protected by government?

    1. Thank you for asking a question about a point that I made insufficiently clear in my essay.

      Marijuana's harms are measurably fewer and less severe than those of currently legal substances: tobacco, alcohol, and prescription painkillers. Furthermore, while marijuana is not purely self-regarding action, it's pretty close. So the case for regulating marijuana is neither internally valid nor externally justified.

      Adult marijuana use neither "picks the pocket" nor "breaks the leg" of anyone who decides to abstain, therefore it is a matter best left to freedom-of-choice.

      By pointing out that marijuana is prohibited merely because it was unpopular in 1937, I was making a point that was basically descriptive of the way that politics actually works. At the time US cannabis laws were made, marijuana users constituted a small, marginalized, unpopular group of Americans. Their opinions, values, norms, habits, desires, cultural practices etc, could be safely ignored--and they were.

      But by criminalizing that which is merely unpopular we reach the state of profound over-criminalization wherein the sheer volume of law leads to an impenetrable jungle of arcane, contradictory, and illogical laws. Paradoxically, the proliferation of laws leads to less respect for the law overall.


    2. Thanks for your reply, Joe.

      So it sounds like your criteria for 'freedom of choice' is whether it harms non-users. What about something like 'trans-fats'? Those are pretty terrible for you and don't harm non-users. Should it be ok for companies to put that in food to make it taste better?

    3. Trans-fats are a deceptively tricky case. I'm not sure what I think about them overall but I certainly think their ought to be a labeling requirement.

      What do you think?


    4. Joe,

      Yeah, they are tricky. I think I agree with a labeling requirement. Consuming trans-fats is pretty clearly a private matter, so I don't think the government should interfere with it. That said, I think it's perfectly reasonable for the people to ask the government for information so they can make better decisions. I also think it's reasonable to ask the government for its recommendation.

      So I'd support something like: "Warning: this food contain Trans-Fats. The FDA recommends you NEVER consume Trans-Fats."

    5. In case people don't know, it should be noted that the trans fats are presents in many items like doughnuts, cookies, and cakes. (If you are looking at an ingredients label and see any form of "hydrogenated" oils, those are trans fats.)

      "Informed consent" seems to be a concept aimed at adults. Should children be able to buy items with trans fats? How about simple sugar-laden items, which have been linked to widespread problems in the US and elsewhere with diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.?

      Maybe the iconic "kid in a candy store" should be a relic of our barbaric past. I can already hear the bitter, nostalgic objections of those with a conservative temperament...

  2. Tom, are you so confident that the point of law is to promote freedom? Why not something like justice?

    1. "Confident" may not be the right word. After all, law has been used for thousands of years for various purposes, such as to protect the interests of the powerful or to impose morality. I freely concede that historically, the "point" of law has rarely if ever been to promote freedom. Rather, I'm advocating how we [i]ought[/i] to look at law, the way things ought to be rather than the way they are.

      As for why not justice, well, I have a hard time imagining any conception of justice that is not rooted somehow in notions of morality. Justice is usually seen as a matter of what people deserve as reward or punishment for their good or evil acts. In practice, what someone deserves only comes up in law in sentencing for crimes, and in the notion of [i]quantum meruit[/i] as a way of calculating damages in certain kinds of disputes. I know of no legal right to a reward that arises as a result of, say, rescuing children from a burning building, while there might be a right to compensation for losses incurred (damage to clothing, etc.)

      Anyway, justice is subject to the same problems as morality as a basis for law. Exactly as different people will have different views as to what someone ought to do in a given situation, they will have different views as to what someone deserves as a punishment or reward for whatever they end up doing.

      And so the same fundamental problem arises: if law is meant to promote justice/morality, how can we tell a person who has a different conception of justice or morality that he has a moral duty to obey the law, without falling into a vicious circularity? We can't.

      That is why I argue that a general duty binding upon everyone to obey the law can only be founded in a law that is directed at maximizing freedom. You can only object to being bound by THAT kind of law by rejecting freedom as a value itself, but if you say freedom isn't important, then you have no basis upon which to object to your freedom being constrained by law.

    2. Thanks Tom,

      It sounds like you're saying that whatever reason you give for obeying the law must be a reason that everyone can rationally agree with. Am I reading you correctly?

      Then what do you do about all the people who think that freedom is important, but that justice is more important? Or what about all the people who have different visions of what 'freedom' means? They'll end up with radically different law codes. The complaints from these people might be that the law doesn't constrain enough: they have no objection to the law- in fact, they want more of it.

      The plurality of fundamental political beliefs is a sticky problem. It's just as hard to get agreement on a certain version of 'freedom' as the basis of law as it is to get agreement on a certain version of 'justice' as the basis of law. If anything, religious societies have had more luck getting agreement on a certain version of 'morality' as the basis of law, since the common religious was the basis of that morality.

    3. Well, let's look at it this way. I assume you have some sort of value system that informs what you think you ought to do in most situations. If so, then there are presumably a bunch of secondary, instrumental values, things you ought to do not because you value them directly, but because they are instrumentally useful in enabling you to go after the things you DO value. So, most value systems will place some value on freedom, either as a primary value in its own right, or as an instrumental good useful in pursuing the primary values. (If you DON'T value freedom as either a primary or instrumental good, then you should be indifferent as to whether or not the law makes demands on your freedom, and at least are in no position to say you should be allowed to break the law. But the instant you DO protest against being required to do or not do something, you implicitly express a preference for at least one instance of freedom.)

      Now, my point is this: IF you value freedom at all, either as a primary or instrumental good, THEN your own value system (whatever it is) supplies a prima facie reason to agree to a system of laws designed to maximize freedom. You may or may not feel you have other conflicting obligations that supersede the duty to obey the law, but a duty to lawfulness will at least exist somewhere within your value system.

      That's my main point about why law must serve freedom. Everyone's moral code says something about what other people OUGHT to do, and so it's meaningful for me to say that you OUGHT to live by my rules. But by the same token, you can tell me that I OUGHT to live by YOUR rules instead. There is no obvious way, objectively, to decide which of us is right. And if I happen to wave some magic wand and declare "Now the LAW says you must live my my values!" you have no reason to recognize the magic of my wand, and you can wave your own wand and declare that YOUR values are supreme. (This is so whether the magic wand is a bunch of guys with swords, a putatively holy book, or the "will of the majority"; if I don't fear your swords or believe in your holy book or respect the tyranny of your mob, my values will be unaffected, though I may end up a martyr.)

  3. Mahmoud, why do you think people have a right to do what they want with their body?

  4. In the context of my essay this was to be jumping off point that I assumed most of the readers would agree with.

    As for its justification, a (human) person is constituted by a mind and a body. To deny a person the right to do what they wish to do with their body is to deny their autonomy which is wrong for a couple reasons:

    1) It can lead to bad outcomes and suffering. By guaranteeing autonomy people are able to look out for their own interests and seek happiness. When people are denied autonomy (i.e. slavery) they suffer psychologically, and this can lead to unfair hierarchies and social structures.

    2) Respecting an individual's autonomy is a categorical imperative. It is our obligation to treat individuals as such and failing to do so is a moral fault. This treating people as ends in themselves rather than a means to an end finds its backing in Kantian moral philosophy.

    I admittedly don't have much background on rights and their justification, but it seems that if we have any rights at all they would include the right to one's own body.