As a Libertarian, autonomy, liberty, and equality are three of my fundamental moral principles. It strikes me as self-evident that adults should be entitled, by law, to consume drugs – regardless of the health implications or anyone else’s disapproval. Marijuana, in particular, is benign (as far as drugs go) and criminalising it is blatantly counter-productive. I will explore various reasons that this is the case but, ultimately, I believe that “Freedom is a good in itself, not a means to an end” (Goodwin, 1992, p.42).
Marijuana is legally comparable with the hallucinogenic drug peyote in that both are Schedule 1 (illegal to sell, possess or ingest) psychoactive drugs with fiercely contested legal status. In 1988 the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favour of a cultural exemption for the use of peyote in Native American Church ceremonies, finding that the practice is protected by the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom. The dominant philosophy in the United States is Liberalism (of which Libertarianism is a branch) – a political philosophy that arose in 17th century Europe with thinkers espousing radical ideas about equality and opposing discrimination. Inequality and discrimination had traditionally been a pervasive and accepted part of life; including in the feudal justice system where “different grades of citizen were tried in different courts and had different legal rights” (Goodwin, 1992, p.333). The Oregon court ruling rested on an assumption that prohibiting Native American Church followers from using peyote would have an unequal impact on them, as compared to other users, because their use is somehow more meaningful.
Religious freedom is a critical tenet of Liberalism that has been central to its doctrine for centuries – and is particularly poignant for U.S. citizens whose country was founded by religious minorities escaping persecution in Europe. However, positive discrimination for the faithful equates to negative discrimination for the rest of society. Liberalism continues to evolve with different ideas about what equality and non-discrimination really mean. “Difference-blind liberals...are committed to the view that the rule and exemption approach is unjust” (Pike, 2008, p.106). For us, justice demands that all are equal individuals before the law regardless of cultural or other differences. People should not be treated with privilege or prejudice in secular liberal societies based on their religious affiliation.
Marijuana use is not without health-risks but, in assessing them, we have to ask: “Compared to what?” In 2016 there were 27.2 million deaths caused by smoking tobacco (NHS, 2018). Marijuana (which has half the number of users than tobacco (ONS, 2016 and NHS, 2016) accounted for fewer than 5 deaths per 100,000 in the same period (ONS, 2018). Marijuana has proven useful for the treatment of chronic pain, spasticity, nausea, and vomiting in chemotherapy, and drug-resistant epilepsy (among other conditions). From November 2018, doctors in the U.K. have been able to prescribe ‘medical marijuana’ (Busby, 2018). It remains to be seen what the outcomes of this move will be but it is likely to be found that it could be more effective for some conditions in some people and that side effects are less severe than those of prescription drugs.
One effect of marijuana prohibition has arguably been the alteration in the chemical makeup of the most commonly sold strains. Because space is at a premium in drug smuggling, the chemical composition has been adapted to increase the strength of the drug. THC (which has the functions of affecting memory, movements, thinking, concentration, coordination, sensory and time perception, and inducing feelings of pleasure (Nagarkatti et al, 2009)) levels have increased which has caused levels of CBD (which negates the anxiety and potential psychotic side effects of THC (Blessing et al, 2015)) to decrease. Legalisation could allow for more informed consumer choice and therefore better mental health outcomes for users. Besides, whether I like it or not, legalisation of marijuana would facilitate taxation of marijuana which could be funneled into paying for related healthcare.
"Liberal philosophy has established the greatest civilisation known to man and I am glad that we are still progressing in many ways – including the moves of so many Western states towards decriminalization and legalisation of drugs, commonly starting with marijuana."
Across the Western world, our prisons are overcrowded and our inmates are both denied rehabilitative care and are subject to legal discrimination once they are free, which inhibits their ability to improve their lives. The idea that imprisoning people for the victimless crimes of possessing and ingesting marijuana could have a positive impact on their lives (or society) is laughable. Redirecting problematic drug users to support services would be far cheaper, more effective, and also alleviate the strain on overcrowded prison systems so that they can function better.
Portugal presents a lesson in how to effectively deal with drug crises. By the end of the 1980s, heroin was ubiquitous in many parts of the country and the rate of HIV infection was the highest in Europe. Draconian legislation was having little success in battling the crisis until the work of guerrilla doctors, psychiatrists, and pharmacists (who risked ostracism and imprisonment to provide the treatment they believed their patients needed) was heeded by the State. In 2001, Portugal’s government decriminalized the possession and consumption of all drugs. Since then, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or simply be informed about treatment and signposted towards support services. Rates of problematic drug use, drug-related crime, and incarceration rates have all dropped significantly. The rate of HIV infection has plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015 (Ferreira, 2017).
John Locke argued that the government’s task “is the preservation of peace, while morality is the business of priests” (Goodwin, 1992, pp.45). Classical Liberalism holds the essential duties of the state to be defence and the protection of property rights, not unduly crediting politicians with the “expertise” required to give instruction on moral issues beyond those that have a clear victim. Actually, according to Liberal philosophy, “The individual is…credited with knowledge of his own best interests and the ability to pursue them rationally” (Goodwin, 1992, p.37) in an optimally organised society. Liberal philosophy has established the greatest civilisation known to man and I am glad that we are still progressing in many ways – including the moves of so many Western states towards decriminalization and legalisation of drugs, commonly starting with marijuana.