On January 20, 2017, approximately 5,000 joints were passed around and lit at exactly four minutes and twenty seconds into Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration. (Scipioni, Jade) The purpose of the demonstration was to show support for the decriminalization and legalization (D&L) of recreational and medical marijuana use in light of the recent administration change and contradictory policy position statements by the new administration. As early as 1970, studies have been published advocating for the liberalization of marijuana for social and economic reasons, though its use remains prohibited in different capacities across the country. As of the weeks following the 45th election, adult consumption of cannabis is legalized to some degree either medically or recreationally in over half of the country. (“Election: Marijuana Just Became Legal in These States.”) The moral dilemma of the D&L debate is essentially about whether or not restricting people’s freedom to make decisions about personal matters like drug use still constitutes good praxis in the late-industrial era.
In “The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,” Immanuel Kant lays down the framework for the relationship between morality and law. Kant explains how in good will and the foundations of duty, there is a categorical imperative to a universal moral law. (Kant, Immanuel.) “An action done from duty,” he says, “has its moral worth, not in the purpose to be attained by it, but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided on.” This idea of dissociation between the will and execution of an action from the effects of the action as a moral subject is a foundational principle to moral universalism and reverence for law as a dynamic manifestation of a fixed good and evil. Our tendency to “spread democracy” (implying that our system is the best for everybody) and involve the state in affairs both foreign and domestic are evidence of traditional American universalism in the public sphere. (Gaus, Gerald, Shane D. Courtland) Though the origins of cannabis prohibition have little to do with American foreign policy, historically, its continued criminalization can be seen as a reflection of this traditional moral universalism rooted in classical liberalism.
Evidence of this classical liberal universalism can still be found in modern discourse against the D&L of cannabis. With regards to morality as a complex system greater than a sum of socially acceptable habits, discourse on the ethics of cannabis and its consumption can be broken down into moral arguments rooted in the health sciences and sociology.
Comparatively, proponents for the continued criminalization of cannabis possession and use also worry about similar issues as when prohibition was lifted on alcohol. Marijuana use in the public sphere is perceived as antithetical to the best interest of society and morally incompatible with the protestant ethic and neoliberalism. This is mainly due to the risks that widespread use may pose; potential for increased cases of impaired driving and possible deleterious health effects have both been cited as public concerns. (“Marijuana.”) A TIME article published in 2014 puts forth an argument against legalization that is distinctly universalist with imagery of classical neoliberal capitalism that perfectly parallels the idea that a shift from classical to social liberalism is the driving force behind the way the cannabis debate is changing. (“Legalize pot? You Must be High”) In this article, Marty Nemko, cites the failures of our education system to make our children competitive in a global economy, despite our education budget, as a reason why marijuana should not be legalized. He then cites multiple studies that show harmful respiratory effects of consumption, such as carcinogenics from inhaling smoke, as reasons why it is against our best interest to potentially proliferate drug use by decriminalizing it.
To suggest that decriminalization is against society’s interest because it will impair our competitiveness in the global economy is to argue for the predetermination of morality based off of the principles of Kant’s categorical imperative. Cannabis consumption is thus considered immoral based on the premise that ultimately its use is harmful to individuals and hostile to American ideals. It was not until recent advancements in neuroimaging technology that scientists have been able to study the health effects of cannabis consumption, but as studies are slowly showing, the health aspect of the Universalist argument for criminalization is losing ground and being replaced by a more nuanced comprehension of its functionality in society.
An example of the lateral effects of scientific research on popular ethics and public opinion with regards to the cannabis debate can be found buried in the archives of the National Center for Biotechnology information. A 2011 study on the relationship between state D&L and marijuana abuse and/or dependence found that the increased consumption of cannabis was not due to its legalization. (Cerdá, Magdalena, Melanie Wall) The researchers found that comparatively, states with stringent laws actually had higher rates of abuse and dependence than states without such laws, and that marijuana use in general wasn’t significantly affected by legalization. The publication of information supporting the medical utility of marijuana from studies like the one above echoes the Foucaultian notion of determination of the ethical substance, and complicates the moral circumstances about which consumption of the substance can be conducted. (Foucault, Michel.) Evidence supporting medical utility of cannabis restructures the cannabis debate from the traditional universalist disregard for the substance into a relativist argument purporting liberalization. This is one microcosmic example of a radical shift in the public sphere of American culture from moral universalism to relativism central to the ideas that “the knowledge, beliefs, and practices of each society are a matter of convention and are not rooted in absolute principles that transcend time and place.” (Zigon, Jarrett)
In the 2012 Huffington Post article titled “The Moral Case for Legalizing Marijuana,” the author offers a relativist critique of marijuana laws that aligns with similar relativist shifts in the public sphere across other social institutions such as human sexuality. (Miller, Jonothan) In the article, self-described recovering politician Jonothan Miller states that he’s part of the “moral majority” in that his “values system is based on the multi-religious mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Though the former State Treasurer of Kentucky had never even handled a joint, he had opposed the legalization of cannabis while in office- likely due to preexisting stigmas about consumption. Free of what he calls his “electoral blinders,” he now proposes that D&L would better reflect universally-shared moral values in the modern industrial world. In essence, he argues that to love thy neighbor in the melting pot, loving thy neighbor means the rejection of neoliberal ideals and finding a balance between individual liberty and social justice, and is not contradictory to the general goals of well-being and security of the population. Miller then offers a rebuttal to the universalists against D&L on the subjects on health care, criminal justice, and economic opportunity.
The health concerns that Miller rebuts are repetitions of previously cited concerns; he explains how modern science shows time and time again how cannabis itself isn’t inherently useless and harmful but rather certain aspects of its conduct may be abused to become harmful. In a lateral twist, Miller also sheds light on the interconnectedness of other social issues within our criminal justice system and the cannabis debate. “The creation of a legal, domestic marijuana industry — fully regulated like alcohol to ensure a safe product and to prohibit sales to minors,” he argues, would solve a multitude of social and economic issues such as mass incarceration for non-lethal, victimless crimes (there is an enormous racial inequality issue here as well), as well as gang violence and drug trafficking problems. Beyond the justice system and the cost to taxpayers to fund the high rates of incarceration, Miller estimates that the creation of a legal cannabis industry would be monumental to the economic development of poverty stricken regions and lower unemployment levels across the country. “With national poverty and unemployment rates at morally unacceptable levels,” he says, “legalizing marijuana could create many thousands of new jobs in agriculture and associated industries such as warehousing, packaging, transportation, advertising, and distribution.” In summation, Miller offers that D&L would “strengthen the moral fibers” of America. This kind of rhetoric maintains the same social liberty undertones evident within this radial relativist movement in our American moral system.
Through critical analysis of such debates as morality as it relates to laws and culture, it’s clear that industrialization and globalization in the 21st century has pushed the societies of the world to engage in economic and social interactions that oftentimes create conflicts between ethics systems The focus on virtue ethics on character of the individual rather than the consequences of the acts which we wish to evaluate is the source of these cultural contradictions that manifest into social issues. Kelly Miller, in her 2015 Hub Pages article titled “The Legality of Marijuana and Relativism,” goes as far as to say that, in a society of laws based off of virtue ethics instead of with deontological sympathies (now that we’ve found utility in cannabis consumption), the D&L of cannabis is an inevitable development.
Assuming this is the reality, it implies that this movement for moral relativism and utilitarianism and push away from classical liberalism will follow through across our social institutions in America and around the world. Conditional on a third World War not happening any time in the near future, this movement will secure social liberties, eradicate institutionalized systems of oppression, and minimize marginalization of minority groups in our society by shifting the frameworks of how we talk about morality. The liberalization of marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington has already shown to be a worthwhile endeavor. The recent 2016 Washington Post article, “Here’s how legal pot changed Colorado and Washington,” reports a collection of statistics disproving the health and criminal myths of cannabis D&L, and shows how it’s legalization in both states has led to a boost in tax revenue that will be reinvested in the state’s mental health and education institutions. (Ingraham, Christopher) Perhaps in recognizing principles of moral and cultural relativism as the driving force behind other issues in our society, we can expect to move on from American individualism and discover good praxis in our pursuit to secure social liberty.
- Scipioni, Jade. “5,000 Free Joints Passed out in D.C. for Trump Inauguration.” Fox Business. January 20, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2017/01/20/5000-free-joints-passed-out-in-d-c-for-trump-inauguration.html.
- “The right way to do drugs.” The Economist. February 13, 2016. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21692881-argument-legalisation-cannabis-has-been-won-now-difficult-bit-right.
- Kaplan, J. “MARIJUANA, THE NEW PROHIBITION.” NCJRS Abstract – National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/abstract.aspx?ID=2991.
- “Marijuana.” Above the Influence. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://abovetheinfluence.com/drugs/marijuana/?gclid=CjwKEAiA6OnFBRDcgt7YmPKI33ESJACJoTJYVVOozyNjHK1L3HyZ0n6ls2_DFUeWvbdvhrq4D1vBsxoCI3Hw_wcB#facts.
- “Does Long-Term Cannabis Use Stifle Motivation?” Psychology Today. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201307/does-long-term-cannabis-use-stifle-motivation.
- Cerdá, Magdalena, Melanie Wall, Katherine M. Keyes, Sandro Galea, and Deborah Hasin. “Medical marijuana laws in 50 states: investigating the relationship between state legalization of medical marijuana and marijuana use, abuse and dependence.” Drug and alcohol dependence. January 01, 2012. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3251168/.
- Kant, Immanuel. 2014. “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.” In Moral Anthropology: a Critical Reader, edited by Didier Fassin and Samuel Lézé, 23-28. New York: Routledge.
- “On the Western Tendency to Moral Universalism | The Occidental Observer – White Identity, Interests, and Culture.” Sitewide ATOM. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2011/03/on-the-western-tendency-to-moral-universalism/.
- Gaus, Gerald, Shane D. Courtland, and David Schmidtz. “Liberalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. November 28, 1996. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberalism/#LibEth.
- “Election: Marijuana Just Became Legal in These States.” Time. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://time.com/4559278/marijuana-election-results-2016/.
- Jonathan_Miller. “The Moral Case for Legalizing Marijuana.” The Huffington Post. January 11, 2012. Accessed March 14, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathanmiller/the-moral-case-for-legali_b_1199242.html.
- “Legalize Pot? You Must Be High.” Time. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://time.com/3573394/legalize-pot-you-must-be-high/.
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality:“Vol. 2. 1990.
- Zigon, Jarrett. Morality: an anthropological perspective. Berg, 2008.
- Board, The Editorial. “Scientists to Government: Make It Easier to Study Marijuana.” The New York Times. January 17, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/opinion/scientists-to-government-make-it-easier-to-study-marijuana.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FMarijuanaandMedical Marijuana&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.
- Miller, Kelly. “The Legality of Marijuana and Relativism.” HubPages. February 25, 2015. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://hubpages.com/education/The-Legality-of-Marijuana-and-Relativism.
- Ingraham, Christopher. “Here’s how legal pot changed Colorado and Washington.” The Washington Post. October 13, 2016. Accessed March 14, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/10/13/heres-how-legal-pot-changed-colorado-and-washington/?utm_term=.90ff1e7e72e9.