Pot and Principles

It is the classic symbol of a deadbeat on the road to delinquency. A hooded teenager leans against a tree, smoking pot, perhaps no more than a block or two from his high school campus. Or perhaps he sits in a smoky room with his friends on a clear summer night, passing around a bong and complaining about the tyranny of his parents, the government, or the military-industrial conflict. “Peace, man,” he mumbles incoherently, without the slightest idea of what war really is, and thus with no concept of what peace means, either.

The stereotypes about weed come to mind all too easily. It is easy to react to the images they conjure up with an automatic opposition, an instinct to drive the unwelcome reality away from mainstream society through robust state action. Yet all too often we Christians react out of instinct, rather than a compassion informed by reason. If we are to make a serious attempt to do justice to those among us who choose to use marijuana, by far the most widely used illegal drug in America, we must make an earnest effort to understand the public consequences of choices – and not only the choices of marijuana users, but those made by government officials, which we as citizens tacitly approve through continual support for official government policy.

Let us examine the justice of the status quo over marijuana legalization.

Marijuana and the principle of proportionality

In the wake of recent referendums in Colorado and Washington, it is now legal for marijuana to be sold to adults in two of America’s 50 states, and 16 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, now allow citizens to purchase marijuana for medical purposes. Many blame the immense difficulties of enforcing “pot laws” for this growing trend towards legalization. Yet numerous others see it as a response to the fact that, unlike many other drugs, “weed” can in fact be relatively harmless. While some studies have linked extremely heavy use of it to an increase in heart attacks and strokes, and drivers under its influence are twice as likely to be in involved in accidents, the effects of cannabis are not particularly serious, especially compared to other illegal substances. It is not even physically addictive, although psychological addiction can and does happen – the same way that it can and does happen with cultural products like TV franchises and music.

By most measures, then, alcohol consumption is significantly more dangerous than the use of marijuana; yet the former is legal while the latter is not. Biblical justice is proportional; our current method of punishing marijuana users and dealers is anything but. Anyone involved in a marijuana-distribution operation can face decades behind bars if one of their colleagues owns a gun, and occasionally people end up in prison for life – without parole – for selling “less than a joint.” This type of enforcement system bears more resemblance to the heavy-handed justice now on display in theaters in Les Miserables than it does to the “eye-for-an-eye” ethos of Levitical law, let alone the more liberal “law of mercy” that many seen in the New Testament.

But although criminalizing the sale of cannabis solely on medical grounds is disproportionate, there are legitimate questions about marijuana’s role as a gateway drug. It has often been contended that this gateway only exists because a cannabis purchase often brings users into contact with dealers of worse chemicals, but this contention has yet to be proven. If the gateway effect is sufficiently powerful, it could be argued that although dealers may not intend evil by plying their goods, they cause enough harm through their actions that, despite all the negative societal effects that criminalizing drugs creates, governments may be justified in continuing to prosecute them. In other words, there may yet be a case for preserving government sanctions against the use of cannabis.

Ends, means and the principle of double effect

Many might consider this line of thinking a dangerous belief in the ends justifying the means, in the idea that it is justifiable to lock up well-meaning dealers, whose wares are not dangerous, merely because society is better off when they are captives. We must be careful not to fall into such a moral morass. Yet according to Thomas of Aquinas, the principle of double effect may justify producing such an otherwise unjust outcome under some circumstances. Is this the case here?

Aquinas’s principle says that any action that has foreseeably harmful effects must fulfill the nature-of-the-act condition, the means-end condition, the right-intention condition and the proportionality condition. In other words, the nature of the action itself must be either morally good or indifferent, the good end must not be achieved because of the harmful effect, the intent of the actor must be good, and the benefits of the action must be proportionate to the degree of harm caused, the end positive results being at least as significant as any negative side effects. The current U.S. policy of incarcerating cannabis dealers fits the second criterion, as drug dealers are not kept off the street as a result of their misery in prison, and assuming lawmakers imposed the law for the right reason, it fits the third criterion as well. It could even perhaps be argued that, as a result of the gateway effect, the fourth criterion is met.

Still, is it just to imprison for years a man or woman who has done nothing but sell a substance substantially less dangerous than alcohol? When all the larger concerns cease to be factors, is it right or even reasonable to condemn a fellow human being to months or years in federal prison for a virtually harmless act? When the ends cease to be a factor, it is no more just to jail someone for such a thing than it is to deliberately bomb civilian population centers during wartime. Current marijuana laws, then, do not meet the very first criterion for the principle of double effect, the nature-of-the-action condition. It must be our inescapable conclusion that our nation’s status quo is only justifiable by a belief that the ends justify the means. And if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, such a belief is utterly unacceptable to God.

It should go without saying that Christian backing for a push to decriminalize marijuana does not need to translate into a Christian affirmation of drug use. While many users would argue that as cannabis users, they can still glorify God in their bodies as long as they do negligible lasting damage, numerous others would argue the reverse. But the law is a different matter. Whatever our feelings about personal consumption, as faithful believers, doers of justice and lovers of mercy, we can no longer defend the portion of Nixon’s ongoing “War on Drugs” that touch on ganja.

-Jack Hanke is a sophomore at Gordon College