Extended Examples: Marijuana

An example of how not to do philosophy comes from William Bennett (Ph.D. in philosophy and first "drug czar" in the administration of George H.W. Bush) who offered the following "argument": "The simple fact is that drug use is wrong. And the moral argument, in the end, is the most compelling argument [for the aggressive enforcement of U.S. drug laws]" (Rachels, p. 101)
Bennett argument can be restated as follows:

    1) Using drugs is morally wrong.

    2) Therefore, using drugs should be illegal and we should vigorously enforce the drug laws

    Premise (1): Rachels observes that Bennett simply asserts his claim about drugs; namely, that it is immoral, without offering any reasons or evidence at all to support this claim. We might add that this is exactly opposite to a philosophical approach. Philosophy (including ethics) requires to give good reasons to support our ethical positions and claims.
    Conclusion (2): Bennett also claims that using drugs ought to be illegal and laws should be vigorously enforced simply because using drugs is immoral. However, it is simply false that ethical arguments automatically settle legal issues. For example, consider this argument.

      (3) In some circumstances, lying is morally wrong.

      (4) Therefore, it hose circumstances, lying should be illegal and we should vigorously enforce laws prohibiting lying.

      (3) is true. But (4) does not follow from (3). On the contrary, it seems that there are conclusive reasons against the criminalization of lies. In particular, if we criminalized lying we would cause more harms that we try to prevent. Similarly, even if we assume that using marijuana is immoral, it does follow it should be illegal.


      But is using marijuana and other drugs immoral? And, if it is, should it be illegal? When we discuss ethical problems related to using marijuana, there are two separate sets of questions to ask:

      • Is it morally permissible to use marijuana? (Why or why not?)
      • Should using be regulated by law and what kinds of regulations should we adopt? Should it be fully legalized and sold openly without regulation? Should it be legalized and regulated? Should it be decreminalized?  (Why or why not?) 
      Rachels is careful in distinguishing these questions and addressing them separately. That's a virtue of his approach.
      Ethical questions are answered by applying ethical theories to those questions. The theories that we have studied and we will us are: 
      Utilitarianism: An act is morally right if and only if it brings about the best balance of utility (i.e., the best balance of benefits and harms).
      In other words, an act is right (very roughly) when it has desirable consequences and wrong when it has undesirable consequences.
      Categorical Imperative (Formula of Respect): Do an act (an act is morally right) if and only if it does not treat any person merely as a means but always also as an end in itself!
      In other words, an act is wrong when (roughly) it treats someone merely as a means (that is, it violates someone's autonomy through coercion, deception, manipulation, trickery, etc.)
      Rachels considers only utilitarian theory in its applications to marijuana. The reason for it is that Kantian theory is introduced later in the book, in chapters 9-10.
      Alternatives concerning using
      • Use marijuana (including various sub-options, such as smoking or adding it to food or drinks)
      • Do not use it, period.
      Benefits mentioned by Rachels:
      • It causes or enhances sensory pleasures, e.g., pleasures of eating, or listening to music. 
      Other possible benefits mentioned by others:
      • It has medicinal value for some people, especially for glaucoma and AIDS patients. (This is not related to so called recreational use; still it is very important factor.)
      • It helps to make connections between various things, concepts, and ideas. Artists and scientists report that it sometimes leads to some artistic and scientific insights and discoveries.
      • It relaxes people.
      • It helps people to work through their hang-ups and problems and to establish more harmonious relations e.g., between couples or parents and children.
      • Contributes to better love making. 
      • Can help to go through stress, sadness, depression cause by a broken heart, etc.
      Using Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures, some of the things mentioned by others seem more conducive to produce higher kinds of pleasures (and other benefits). Consequentialists (utilitarians) should take these factors into account.

      For more on the topic of various reasons related to using cannabis, see an essay by Jason Fagone, "The Willy Wonka of Pot: A trip to Hemfest with pioneering cannabis breeder DJ Short" (November 13, 2013).

      Also, here is a you tube clip with a great interview with a commedic genius George Carlin. He makes some really interesting points about  hard drugs and marijuana, starting at about 3:10.
      Some frequently mentioned (that is, alleged or putative) harms:
      • Does it cause violence?

      What causes violence is not using it but rather things related to selling it in the situation when it is illegal. People who use marijuana tend to be mellow and friendly rather than aggressive. They are surely much more mellow and friendly than people who use alcohol and hard drugs.

      • Is it a gateway drug?

        There is no evidence of that. People tend to use what is used in the circles in which they travel. There seems to be a special problem about criminalization -- once the laws prohibiting using marijuana are broken people may form a mistaken belief that breaking other laws is similarly innocuous. Furthermore, if marijuane can be bought only illigally, drug users will tend to push harder drugs, too, because it is in the dealers interest. So what open the "gate" is not marijuana but rather criminalization of it. In fact, there is some evidence to the conrary.

        A "Newsweek" essay arguing that marijuana is not a gateway drug.

        • Is it addictive?

        It is not highly addictive. See, for example this NYT essay. It is much less addictive than using alcohol or cafeene or cigarettes or sugar.

        • It makes people mildly paranoid.

        True for some people. But it depends on a person and what strain of marijuana is used. 

        The real or more serious harms:
        Mostly, these harms are related to abusing marijuana rather than using it.
        • Can lead to painful addiction.
        • Can cause mild cognitive damage.
        • Can cause short term memory loss.
        • Can lead to unproductivity.
        • Can cause damage to the respiratory system when smoked. A joint is an equivalent of a few cigarettes. However, this harm can be mitigated by changing a delivery system to, e.g., a marijuana spiked "brownie" or a water pipe.
        • A possibility of legal problems (where it is illegal).

        Generally, as NYT essay observes:

        "An independent scientific committee in Britain compared 20 drugs in 2010 for the harms they caused to individual users and to society as a whole through crime, family breakdown, absenteeism, and other social ills. Adding up all the damage, the panel estimated that alcohol was the most harmful drug, followed by heroin and crack cocaine. Marijuana ranked eighth, having slightly more than one-fourth the harm of alcohol."

        Rachels' assessment (based on a utilitariantheory):
        For some people, using marijuana in moderation can bring about the best balance of benefits and harms (especially when it is legal or, at least, decriminalized). A consequentialist (utilitarian) theory would imply that, for those people,  it is permissible
        Rachels does not apply Kantian theory to this case. The reason for it is that the theory is only briefly mentionned in chapter 1, and more fully developed in chapters 9-10. So, let us consider what this theory would imply about our case.
        Kantian Theory: A reminder, let's assume that someone is used merely as a means (which is wrong) when someone's autonomy is violated. Someone's autonomy is violated when we do not have a fully rational and well informed consent from this person.
        Using marijuana (if regulated) does not violate autonomy of others (for no one is/would be forced or tricked into using it). So, it is not wrong on those grounds
        But what about autonomy of the user? We should remember that, when abused, using it can lead to addiction, some cognitive damage, and short term memory loss. Those results would somewhat constrain the autonomy of a user. So, there are some Kantian reasons against abusing it.
        Along the same lines, abusing alcohol, or eating too much sugar or hamburgers may seriously constrain someone's autonomy. So, we would have Kantian reasons against abusing those things. This is not to say that the same reasons apply to using them in moderation. 
        We should be also concerned about a very low probability that a person abuses marijuana (perhaps gets addicted and starst doing harmful things).
        Alternatives concerning legalization
        • Keep the current laws intact.
        • Modify (relax)  the current laws; e.g., decriminalize it by reducing the level of offence and penalties (e.g., fines might be OK, but not prison terms)
        • Fully legalize it and then regulate (similarly to what we do, e.g.,with alcohol, cigarettes, or guns)
        Some benefits of legalization:
        Benefits at the personal level:
        • Better quality of the stuff we would use
        • Lower risks of using it.
        • It would eliminate unnecessary arrests (850.000 per year)


        Financial benefits for the society at large:

        Tax reveniues

        • According to Rachels, it would generate $ 2.4-6.2 billion in tax revenue (depending on the level of taxation). Newer data imply that this assessment is way too conservative.
        • According to 2010 Cato Institute study: Legalization of all drugs would generate tax revenue of roughly $46.7 billion annually if drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. About $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana, $32.6 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $5.5 billion from legalization of all other drugs."

        Savings (war on drugs)

        • According to Rachels: It would save serious money (about $ 7.7 billion) for fighting anti-social crimes.
        • According to 2010 Cato Institute study: drug legalization would reduce government expenditure about $41.3 billion annually. Roughly $25.7 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, and roughly $15.6 billion to the federal government. About $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana, $20 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $12.6 billion from legalization of all other drugs. 


        General problems related to criminal justice and fairness:

        • Legalization would undermine drug cartels and dealers (at least, it would cut into their profits).

        According to 4 Fascinating Things Marijuana Legalization Has Already Taught Us: "At least 60,000 people have died in the drug war Mexico President Felipe Calderon declared on the cartels six years ago. But a more peaceful solution may be at hand. Legalizing weed in just two states -- CO and WA -- could deliver a serious blow to Mexican cartel profits; US officials estimate that 60 percent of cartel profits come from marijuana. At the very least, it is the “gateway drug” for hustling, as many Mexican traffickers start with pot before moving up to the harder stuff".

        • It would help to handle the problem of overcrowded prisons (about 44,000 people serve sentences for using marijuana. The society pays up to about $50,000 for a year in prison. So, We could save additional $2-2.5 billion releasing thos prisoners.)
        • The issues of rectifying existing injustice/unfairness:

        "In Washington, DC, it is estimated that three out of four young black men will serve time in prison. In New York, with 50,000 marijuana arrests per year, 90% are black or Latino. In Seattle, the 8% black population accounts for 60 percent of the arrests. Over the last 10 years Colorado police have arrested Latinos at 1.5 times the rate of whites, and blacks at over three times the rate of whites. Newly passed marijuana laws reflect the beginnings of a backlash." (5 Ways Most Americans Are Blind to How Their Country Is Stacked for the Wealthy)


        Other social benefits of legalization/decriminalization

        In Portugal all drugs have been decreminalized for more about 15 years. The rates of using hard drugs went down. Here is an extended quote from the essay addressing the issue:

        "Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them -- to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs. [...]

        An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I'll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass -- and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example." (More on this topic here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html)

        Putative (alleged) harms
        • More people would use marijuana or would use more of it.

        We have to be careful how to state this problem. If the argument from the earlier sections are correct and using pot may be overall beneficial. Consequently, the fact that more people would use it is not really a problem.

        If the problem is that more people would abuse marijuana then we need some evidence of it. Many countries decreminalized marijuana. Drug use increased there minimally or not at all. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the abuse increased, too.

        In addition, these harms are offset by the fact that less people would drink/abuse alcohol (a much more dangerous and harmful habit).

        • We would have more car accidents.    

        There is no evidence of that. In particular, users tend to be defensive drivers. (If you are writing a paper on this topic, find data related to states that legalized marijuana.)

        Utilitarian theory:
        There are many benefits of legalization and few (if any) harms.
        There are many harms of criminalization and few (if any) benefits.
        Legalization and regulation seems to bring about the best net utility.
        Relaxing the existing laws seems to be the second best option. At least, we would eliminate some serious harms (e.g., users would not end up in jail which is harmful to them and costly to the society.
        Keeping the existing laws intact seems the worst option
        Kantian theory:
        The current laws are extremely invasive; they involve gross infringements on human autonomy. For example, people are sent to jail for using marijuana and taxpayers are forced to pay taxes to keep those people in jail.
        Kant was an absolutist about ethical rules. He would object against any infringement of autonomy.
        Contemporary (neo-)Kantians are less absolutist; they allow for some exceptions to moral rule.
        The considerations mentioned in th next sections are sometimes offered as grounds for limiting someone's autonomy: 
        Paternalism: An intervention that limits someone’s autonomy for the sake of this person.
        For example, we do not allow children to buy alcohol or cigarettes because they do not know how to use them so they would likely harm themselves. Also, we force people to wear safety belts because it's good for them.
        Harms to others: We limit someone's  freedom when his actions may cause serious harms. 
         For example, my right (freedom) to swing a baseball bat ends where your nose begins.
        The protection of autonomy of others.
        For example, we do not allow people to smoke in public places (like a restaurant) because others do not want there being smoke around them.
        Those are all good reasons for regulating marijuana (just like we regulate the use of alcohol and tobbaco). They do not seem to be good reasons for keeping its use illegal.



        • What kinds of mistakes does Bennet make in his argument against use and legalization of marijuana.
        • Why is it reasonable to consider separately whether or not using marijuana is morally permissible and whether or not it should be legal?
        • Main benefits and harms related to use marijuana.
        • Main benefits and harms related to legalization (or criminalization) of marijuana.
        • Does using marijuana violate someone's autonomy? What about criminalization?
        • What is paternalim? Paternalistic reasons for regulating the use of marijuana. .