Cannabis legalization is an idea whose time has come. Bill Maher recently gave us an eye-opening monologue on it, and in his newest book Waking Up, Sam Harris argued that experimenting with altered states of consciousness is certainly a civil right, and that everyone should have certain mind-altering experiences at least once in a lifetime.
From an Epicurean perspective, we could argue that cannabis adds variety to our hedonic regimen, but it’s not usually necessary for happiness, health, or safety. Smoking cannabis for recreational purposes falls within the category of unnatural and unnecessary pleasures, except in the case of medical marijuana, where the case could be made that it is both natural and necessary, if it is demonstrated that it alleviates the suffering tied to some health condition.
All desires that do not lead to pain when they remain unsatisfied are unnecessary, but the desire is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to obtain or the desires seem likely to produce harm. –Principal Doctrine 26
Here, I do not argue for the pleasures of cannabis smoking, which are subjective and—for many of us, at least—uninteresting. Insofar as it may produce unnecessary added legal trouble, perhaps it is a source of more inconvenience than it’s worth. Instead, I will argue the ethical case for legalizing weed for pleasure, not just for medicinal purposes. I think we find in Epicurus’s contractarian theory of justice a common-sense libertarian ideal with which most Westerners might today sympathize.
Victimless crimes are a particularly strong point of contention for many libertarians. They are frequently seen as a symptom that the state has gotten too deeply involved in legislating the private lives of citizens, and is using arbitrary or authoritarian criteria to do so. These criteria are, unfortunately, frequently inspired in religious and superstitious views that have not been carefully and empirically evaluated.
In Epicurus, the key to consider on whether a law is justified is whether it brings mutual advantage. Here are the relevant passages from PD:
31. Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.
33. There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.
37. Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
38. Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.
We find that justice is relative to context, and that the key is to figure out what is of mutual advantage and what prevents mutual harm. PD 37–38 stresses—and this is important—that things that are of mutual advantage can change with circumstances, and that therefore humans should change the laws according to the circumstances.
Another key element here is that law is secular: there are no god-sent or divinely inspired commandments or sharia law, no caste system ordained by Krishna, or anything of that sort. Humans make the rules, and are responsible for changing and adapting them. To give up this grave responsibility is uninformed, lazy, and impractical, and I believe this is one of the key differences between anarchy and Epicurean autarchy: anarchists do not believe in the need for laws, whereas Epicureans are immersed in projects of community-building and take it upon themselves to craft their private laws or rules, if and when necessary, for the pragmatic use of their community.
There is some tension between Epicureans and the state. Las Indias bloggers, for instance, have interpreted our cosmopolitanism and communitarianism as a reaction against the identity and narratives imposed by the polis, but in reality Epicureans are more indifferent than hostile to the polis/state.
Also, it is generally understood that priority is placed on the natural and necessary desires—shelter, protection, life, health, happiness, food—when mutual advantage is considered. This is not to exclude other sources of pleasure, but it is clear that our own nature makes these necessities irresistible.
Having established the basics, let’s now ask ourselves the key question that is of importance when we consider the matter we are investigating: what is of mutual advantage when we legislate concerning medicinal and recreational marijuana use? Let’s first look at the advantages and disadvantages of medical use, and of recreational use.
Anti-cannabis sources cite an increase in heart rate as a potential risk for people with heart disorders. They also cite temporary paranoia and impaired problem-solving, memory and body movement, together with worsening symptoms for patients who are already schizophrenic or depressive, as potential dangers, even as they cite the documented health benefits of cannabis for terminal cancer and AIDS patients. There are also multiple sclerosis and epilepsia patients who claim that they can not have a good quality of life without cannabis. In addition, drugabuse.gov claims:
a study showed that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing cannabis use disorder lost an average of eight IQ points between ages 13 and 38. The lost mental abilities did not fully return in those who quit marijuana as adults.
A few points bear mention here. First, there are some hypocrisies to address: coffee is legal, is not regulated by government, and has been shown to cause increased heart rate and to contribute to panic attacks and worsening of heart problems in patients who already have certain conditions. Tobacco is linked to a great health crisis, as is sugar, for that matter. Tobacco remains legal and regulated, while sugar consumption—which is known to be just as addictive as any drug—is neither regulated nor discouraged, even as diabetes and obesity are on par with smoking in terms of health risks. Alcohol, which is also legal and regulated, is tied to ongoing problems of domestic abuse and traffic accidents. Marijuana does not produce similar health and security risks for the population, yet it is added to a category of dangerous drugs that are positively linked to heart failure (cocaine), severe addiction (heroin, methamphetamine, and others), and other serious life-threatening side effects. It does seem that policymakers’ reaction against marijuana is disproportionate with regard to its harm, particularly when there are substances even more dangerous that remain legal.
Second, in the cases of medical cannabis patients, the attached negative impact of smoking it, whatever it may be, can be written off as side effects just as with any other drug. It’s extremely difficult to argue against the advantages and arguments in favor of legalizing medical cannabis.
The advantages and disadvantages related to health must be measured against the serious problems related to the militarization of public policy (the so-called “war on drugs”), which rather than treat cannabis as a health issue, applies an exaggerated amount of violence against those who consume it for both medicinal and, especially, recreational purposes. As a result of this, thousands of young men (usually of color, who are incarcerated at rates ten times higher than white users) have entered the (sometimes for-profit) prison system and experienced lifelong corruption as a result of bad association, lack of job opportunities, and many other related problems. In the above-cited book, Sam Harris eloquently summarizes the problem:
The “war on drugs” has been lost and should never have been waged. I can think of no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time.
There is the moral problem of how money spent on drugs finances violent cartels in Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere, and increases instability in these countries. According to some estimates, more than 70,000 people have died as a result of Mexico’s drug war, which is based on a demand-supply chain that involves weapons sent to Mexico in exchange for drugs sent to the United States.
I will not delve deeper into the many and complex issues related to the drug war. Perhaps there are some factors and case studies that I’ve missed, in terms of health and policy, but the point of this post is to focus on applying Epicurean theories of justice, and measuring the mutual advantages and disadvantages related to drug policy.
As far as our contribution to violence in Mexico and other countries, and obviously and vulgarly racist incarceration policies, it is clear that a policy of militarization of what could, at most, be described as a public health concern, clearly produces disadvantages for multiple countries, for people of color, and for tax-payers. It may advantage those who profit from investments in the military industrial complex, in the prison industrial complex, and in weapons manufacturing, as well as to those employed by the armed forces to punish users, but these advantages for an unscrupulous few cannot be justified in light of the sad paradigm that they generate.
For all these reasons, the disadvantages by far seem to outweigh whatever advantages people conceive as related to banning the recreational use of cannabis, just as they do with its medicinal use. Our laws “ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous” (if they ever were), to cite from PD 39.