The United States v. Marijuana: Hidden Moral Arguments in the Room?

THC, the active ingredient in marijuana via

By: Ken Ochs

President Obama recently stunned many physicians, members of Congress, and legal experts—as well as the general public—when he opined on marijuana usage in an interview, stating, “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol.” The fact that President Obama was asked about the drug in particular is—of course—not startling at all, as marijuana has received a great deal of legal and medical publicity throughout the past few years. But his answer itself should not have taken many by surprise either, especially if one considers the ethical issues associated with the topic of drug use, which are undergoing constant reexamination and reformulation by modern society.

 Marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance—along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy—and Obama’s comments recently stirred a bipartisan congressional committee to straightforwardly tell the president that this policy, originally written in 1970, “makes no sense.”  There is a strong public consensus in favor of intense policy changes, and though voters might not agree on all of the specifics, there appears to be virtual unanimity in desiring a relaxed approach to marijuana’s medical benefits while likewise conceding that it is relatively safe for recreational use. In fact, a recent poll shows that an unprecedented 88% of New Yorkers support the concept of medical marijuana, while on the national level, a robust 60% of those polled are firmly behind the idea. Just last year, a poll found that three out of every four doctors would prescribe marijuana to their patients, for a variety of conditions from mood disorders to appetite problems. With the changing attitudes of voters, it is highly likely that both legal and medical protocol will soon be amended to reflect the current political, social, and cultural landscapes.

Many in the public domain view these developments with the assumption  that marijuana legalization and medicalization is inevitable. Meanwhile, those in civil authority—the folks who are actually able to make influential changes to law and medicine—have not yet addressed the considerations in the ethical realm that are motivating both these historic shifts in public opinion, and their own efforts to amend existing law. Perhaps that is because even the academic discipline of bioethics has arguably overlooked the topic for too long.

It is an issue that Dr. Luke Bretherton, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University, examines with striking clarity in a January 2014 op-ed for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With many of the so-called “ethical approaches” responding to illicit substances concentrated around the concepts of religious and pastoral concerns for helping drug users, “the substantive issues were never even named, let alone addressed,” according to Bretherton. Addressing these issues involves asking questions such as: What substances are classified as drugs? What exactly is going on when someone uses a drug – morally, ethically, and theologically? What is ethically distinctive when a drug is taken for recreational purposes , versus taken for medical necessity? Americans have been regularly using marijuana for many years, and there is still no definitive provocation to address these questions.

Though, entire subfields of ethics have been devoted to studying the moral implications of popular policy issues like abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, animal testing, and stem cell research, the moral implications of marijuana use is largely unexplored, despite being an issue frequently addressed in public policy. As a result, the field of bioethics has been enriched by the development of a multitude of philosophical constructs like potential personhood, human rationality, and solidarity with nonhuman animals, but a morally fruitful discussion on drug use—specifically marijuana use—is noticeably absent, or, at best, quite rare.

Yet, “there is a hidden moral debate driving the war on drugs that we never seem to bring out in the open,” according to University of Oxford bioethicist and philosopher Julian Savulescu. He notes that when drugs like marijuana (and alcohol, during Prohibition) were made illegal, the moral basis for doing so was their prospects for causing harm. Today, however, Savulescu notes, “when new drugs are added to the long list of illegal substances, it is because they are judged to be ‘addictive,’ not because they are harmful.”

If addictive potential truly is the fundamental moral basis for the modern approach to drug laws, the ethical dimensions of the entire War on Drugs dating back to the Nixon administration is questionable at best. “We all have a right to pursue the pleasures we find valuable, even though each of these pleasures puts us at risk of addictions or addiction-like problems: alcoholism, pathological internet use, sex addiction, binge eating disorder, and so on,” Savulescu observes. What makes drugs – including marijuana – different?

Without delving too far into Savulescu’s detailed philosophical analyses of addiction, one must ask: is it this prevailing ethical undertone—in layman’s terms, a “don’t judge others because they sin differently than you” attitude of sorts—propelling the general public to support marijuana legalization and/or medicalization at incredibly high levels? It is highly unlikely that 88% of New Yorkers smoke marijuana regularly; thus, one can infer that even those who do not have a personal, practical stake in these matters are vehemently ready to endorse them—with some set of unconscious ethical principles.

Given that these values are likely not derived from a religious tradition due to the lack of theological engagement on the subject at hand, what “secular normative traditions” are driving public opinion? Is it pure Hedonism? Is it utilitarian or consequentialist reasoning at work? Or is it mainly the current moral diversity of academic bioethics that has led to a wide-ranging subjectivist outlook, implying that the harmful or addictive nature of certain substances could not be objective truth?

These are difficult questions, indeed, but by dissecting some of the ethical considerations behind the modern legal perspectives, it is difficult to argue with Savulescu’s remark that “the right to pursue pleasure gives us reason to legalize drugs, while addiction and self-harm fail to give us good reason to prohibit them. That is the essence of a strong moral argument against the War on Drugs.” It would appear as though this ethical mindset—if applied specifically to marijuana—has now finally reached the upper echelons of American political authority, and has also taken a firm grounding in the collective public opinion.

Anticipate slow but dramatic changes to the public policy on marijuana in the coming years, as municipalities, states, federal agencies, medical organizations, and legal authorities contend with the their positions regarding use of the substance. Remarkably, those espousing views or altering policies are likely unaware of the ethical decision-making process that led them to their conclusions. In addition, the field of bioethics would benefit from a much more profound analysis of the unique questions that the topics of drugs and drug use present, as the conversation may begin to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of many years of public policy that has—for so long—remained largely unaddressed.

Ken Ochs, FCRH Class of 2015, is a neuroscience major (concentration in cell & molecular neuroscience), theology secondary major, bioethics minor, and Student Editor of Student Voices.

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