08 February 2012

Pot Prohibition and Liberty

Stephen Kershnar
Marijuana Prohibition: The Liberty- and Better-World Arguments
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 6, 2012

Every week in The Leader, the SUNY-Fredonia student newspaper, the police blotter lists crimes for which students were arrested. Common among them are marijuana-related arrests. Also, SUNY-Fredonia had the distinct honor of being named 10th druggiest college in the U.S. by The Daily Beast, although the study’s methodology is flawed. Given the large number of marijuana-related fines, probationary sentences, and prison sentences, there is surprisingly little discussion of whether these laws are justified. The crass-and-shallow politicians dominating the Presidential race (Obama, Romney, and Gingrich) are predictably silent on the topic.

There are two convincing arguments for legalizing marijuana (pot): the liberty argument and the better-world argument. Consider the former. First, people own their own bodies. This explains, for example, why it is wrong to enslave them, forcibly take their organs, or control what they think. Second, if they own their bodies, then they have a moral right to put what they want into them, unless what they wish to put into them is owned by another or will directly harm another. This explains why people have a right to eat unhealthy foods, engage in a wide range of sexual practices (that put a variety of things in their orifices), or mark up their body with unsightly tattoos and piercings. Smoking (or eating) marijuana involves people putting things into their bodies. Hence, people have a moral right to do it.

The objections here are fairly standard and not in the least convincing. One objection is that it is illegal to smoke pot and therefore wrong to do. The obvious problem is that the fact that something is illegal does not make it wrong. For example, owning slaves used to be legal and was still morally wrong. Also, interracial marriage used to be illegal and was still morally permissible. Law doesn’t always track morality because the facts that make an action wrong (right-infringement, direct harm, exploitation, and so on) need not track the facts that make it illegal (for example, approval by the legislative and executive branches).

A related objection is that people have consented to the laws because they have chosen to live in states or a country where pot is criminalized. Somehow the very same people who put this silly argument don’t think that it also justifies the criminalization of sodomy, the legalization of marital rape, or the legalization of forced sterilization of people’s retarded children. Apparently, the they-chose-to-live-there argument is just another rhetorical device to be mindlessly flung about.

A second objection is that marijuana is harmful to the user’s health or, at least, endangers it. This objection fails for the reason that it is false. The studies do not show that moderate recreational use of marijuana is always harmful. It’s less dangerous than other widely used substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. If booze and cigarettes are not dangerous enough to ban, then neither is pot.

Were marijuana always harmful, this still doesn’t warrant trampling on people’s rights. A right is a claim on others that they allow an individual to use his body and property as he sees fit, so long as he is not directly harming others. It is the hallmark of a free society to recognize people’s body- and property-rights. This is what explains the other celebrated rights we have, specifically, right to free speech, religion, assembly, and privacy. For example, the right of free speech is simply the right that one has that others not touch his body or stuff (for example, his printing press or paper). To the degree that a government controls what a person does with his body, it tramples on his rights (that is, his liberty). Because liberty is the most important political value, and the one that has been most celebrated throughout American history, the harm-to-self argument should repel us.

A third objection is that criminalizing marijuana and hunting down people who sell or use it makes the world a better place. The objector further argues that the government should do what it can to make the world a better place, even when this is done by trampling on liberty. This objection is ugly. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Judith Jarvis Thomson, notes that ignoring rights would make it permissible for a physician to kill a healthy patient when his healthy organs can be used to save five people who would otherwise die from organ failure. Anyone who thinks that it would be wrong for an altruistic physician (paging Dr. Obama) to start redistributing organs along these lines must also think it is wrong for a government to do so. That is, liberty limits the ways in which we can make the world a better place.

Even the notion that banning marijuana would make the world a better place is shaky. Consider the better-world argument. In the absence of force, fraud, or theft, what makes people’s lives go better makes the world a better place. In the absence of ignorance about the relevant facts, people tend to want to do what makes their lives go better. Tens of millions of people want to do pot and there is little evidence that they don’t know the relevant facts about pot usage. Thus, pot usage likely makes the world and SUNY-Fredonia better places. It does so because it makes people happier and so makes their lives go better. For the same reason, good pizza makes the world better.

The fourth objection, and one that signals desperation for pot-nannies, is that locking up pot smokers and their suppliers is necessary to protect the children. This is the sort of objection that prissy Congressmen and their effeminate political allies have used to ban steroids, pornography, online gambling, alcohol advertising, and mixed martial arts tournaments. The obvious problem with this argument is that it has no stopping point. Criminalizing alcohol, cigarettes, and swearing will reduce the frequency with which children try them. If liberty can be trampled whenever it protects children, our liberty will shrink to the size of a postage stamp. In addition, given the numbers, the goodness of adults’ enjoying the high life vastly outweighs the badness of a few more children trying pot.

Marijuana should be legal because of the liberty and better-world arguments. An interesting issue and one I won’t explore here is whether law-enforcement personnel enforcing laws against pot should feel compromised. If there is no part of the Constitution that allows the federal or state government to control how people use their bodies, and there isn’t (see Article I Section 8), then one wonders how those pledged to uphold the law can ignore the centerpiece of our legal system and still take pride in what they do.