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A case for caution on marijuana

Let’s slow down the trend toward legalization until we see more results


Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signs a bill to legalize recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21 on May 30 in St. Paul, Minn. Associated Press/Photo by Abbie Parr

A case for caution on marijuana
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Twenty-three states plus Washington, D.C., and Guam have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Minnesota is the most recent to do so, legalizing marijuana in May. This is supposed to be progress. Is it really?

What are the arguments for this trend? One has been that marijuana legalization would make available certain health remedies or alleviation of pain that is not currently on offer via prescription drugs. Medical marijuana, then, became the nose under the tent flap, so to speak.

Then, we began to hear the claim that the criminalization of marijuana has led to the overcrowding of prisons with minority men and women. By getting rid of these possibly racist statutes, we would stop ruining lives with felony convictions. Such arguments could be seen in books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Finally, the view spread that marijuana is not harmful to human beings and that only an outmoded religious censoriousness has kept it under a legal ban. The “enlightened” position, or so it seems, is for the states to legalize the drug, tax it, and reap benefits through the growth of an industry and the tax revenue that comes with it. One might note that a similar logic dominates the national attitude toward gambling.

There is a vigorous empirical debate available on all of these points, but that is not the burden of this column. Rather, I would like to make a classically oriented case for caution with regard to the legalization of drugs such as marijuana. It is a case that could apply with similar force to other vices such as gambling, pornography, and prostitution (still another candidate for broader legalization).

When a society makes laws against various vices, it is trying to provide an ally to human reason and a moral buttress.

Plato famously diagrammed the human soul with three divisions. He identified them as the head (the reason), the chest (the will), and the stomach (the appetite). In order to function well, a human being should be ruled by his (or her) reason in partnership with the will in control of the appetite. Such a person is rightly ordered.

If we reverse the order, then we have a man or woman who is no longer in rational control of life and has become a slave to appetite. He or she would be upside down. In exploring the accounts of drug addicts, you can find descriptions of exactly what it is like to be in the grip of appetite. It would sound something like this: “My drug habit hailed a taxi.” “My addiction went to a particular part of town.” “My appetite for the drug went into a room and paid the money.” Reason is out of the pilot’s seat. The addiction is in. We could find similar narratives dealing with addictions to gambling, to sex, and so forth.

When a society makes laws against various vices, it is trying to provide an ally to human reason and a moral buttress. One might have some success resisting temptation on the sheer merits of abstaining, but if we add some kind of prohibition and penalty through the use of law, then the odds are that more people will choose not to engage in the activity in the first place. In so doing, we are not trying to prevent human beings from enjoying themselves out of some hatred of happiness or pleasure. We are, however, expressing a clear preference for the pattern of life that follows the reason ruling the appetite with the help of the will.

The question, then, is where does marijuana fit into this picture? If we are motivated by fears of the charge of hypocrisy to embrace the drug, then that would be a mistake. Does alcohol interfere with the use of one’s reason? And do problems result from its use? Yes and yes. Is it illegal? No. All excellent points. But it simply does not follow that we should expand the number of things that are treated like alcohol.

Aquinas warned that attempts to ban vice could lead to rebellion. That’s what we saw with the reaction to Prohibition in the United States. The genie was already out of the bottle.

Is the recreational use of marijuana the type of thing that threatens disorder in the human soul and its use of reason and control of appetite? I don’t have a definitive answer to the question. But it seems to me that unless we know the answer, we would be wise to slow down and see how thing play out in the liberalizing states. If they’ve made a mistake, there is time to learn lessons rather than to rush in behind them.


Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University in South Carolina. He is the author of The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul. His work has appeared in a wide variety of other books and journals. He is formally affiliated with Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the Land Center at Southwestern Seminary.


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