Marijuana Legalization and the State – Rightly Considered

You might have heard that Canada is on her way to legalize marijuana possession, use and growth. I’m confused about the morality of the whole thing, but my attention was sparked by this journalist. Read:

But government exists to protect us from force and fraud and I subject him to neither when I drink a beer or smoke a joint even if, by doing so, I diminish his potential pleasure or profit from my company.

That is interesting. I reply that while it is true that the state exists to protect us from force and fraud, that does not exhaust its purposes. The state also exists to help us secure the good, particularly that which is good but cannot be secured by any lesser body or a person. Thus, if the prohibition of recreational marijuana use is good, and if no lower body or person can achieve that good, then the state is within its proper function to prohibit the recreational use of marijuana.

As I see it, men are persons, the grandest of all creations, but we are also lowly persons. We are too often inclined toward evil and depend upon each other for our well-being and goodness. The family, the most basic social unit, cannot meet every human need, particularly in large societies, and so the state serves to help attain and preserve public goods, those such as juridic order and public prosperity.

But what is juridic order and public prosperity? The constitution of the former is well understood but what about the latter, this idea of public prosperity? Public prosperity is the sufficiency and availability of temporal goods for the people. For example, these goods can be material things such as clothing, property and food. That’s pretty straightforward. But goods can also be immaterial. For example, public virtue and moral education are goods of public prosperity, because culture and education are formative influences in personal character and social direction. In helping secure such prosperity, the state helps direct society and people toward the good. That’s what the state is supposed to do and it is the basis for moral legislation.

It is important to understand me correctly: The claim here is not that the state owes these goods to a man, for the state owes nothing to a man that he can reasonably attain himself; it is just that the state plays a natural role in helping to secure and sustain these public goods, not because any man is owed, but because such an end is for the good of mankind. In this way, if recreational marijuana use harms the moral fabric of the public or common culture, then it is public evil, which thus puts it within the scope for state response. I’m unsure which sort of response is best deployed, and so I leave that to the prudential judgement of the state, but I will say that prohibition is not excluded from the range of appropriate responses.

Of course, such a state response would suck for those individuals who enjoy recreational marijuana use, but, hey, no one said that the good and moral life is easy. Moral life can suck. It can require sacrifice. But why might this sacrifice be part of the good and moral life? Well, again, by nature, man is a lowly type of person, one who is dependent upon others for his good; hence, he becomes a part of a whole, a whole whose common good can outweigh his perceived individual good. In this way, then, if recreational marijuana were a public evil, then he would have an obligation not to engage in its use, lest he harm the whole to which he is a part and undermine the public good. Thus, in this case, the state, a preserver of the public good, could legitimately call upon this man to sacrifice his marijuana use for the sake of the common and public good, and he would be obliged to make that sacrifice.

Sometimes critics call such moral legislation paternalistic; but, in this case, I would digress. If recreational marijuana use is a public evil, then such legislation wouldn’t be infantilizing, denying a man his natural rights or self-sufficiency, no. Instead, in this case, if recreational marijuana use were a public evil, then the state would call upon him to make this sacrifice for the good of the whole—that is, the state would call upon him to meet his obligation. It is far from infantilization to call upon people to meet their obligations; indeed, infantilization is a risk only when we do not hold people to their obligations, treating them as children.

What about the freedom to live and act as we choose? Well, what about it? The freedom of choice is surely a good, but it is only a good so that we can freely choose the good and moral excellence. Freedom is not license, remember. Our choices have consequences that extend beyond the individual and penetrate into the residing culture, which is why the state has an interest in our choices, not because it is intrusive on our private lives, but because our choices impact public life. We are not atoms: We live in a society and each person has an impact on public life and public virtue. Social conservatives should never tire of reminding people about this fact–we need to take responsibility for the impact we have, even if it is for those choices we take to be private.

Lastly, sometimes people deny the authority of the state on these matters. To be sure, the authority of the state is not absolute: The legitimate state is restricted by natural law, the principle of subsidiarity and it is restricted to its purpose to help secure the common good. Thus, any action or legislation outside of this can be met with resistance, perhaps even rebellion. However, to deny that the legitimate state has any authority while wishing the state to exist and function is inconsistent, at least if the state has the natural purpose of helping securing and enforcing the public good; for without that authority, then the state could make no such laws at all, which is to render it functionally impotent in respects to its natural end. The state, if it is to exist and function, has authority.

Lastly, I should also mention that respecting the laws of the legitimate state, provided that they are consistent with natural law, is obligatory; for if we did not, then that would undermine the authority of the state, frustrating its natural end, which therefore undermines the common good. Thus, if a legitimate state prohibits recreational marijuana use, then, unless it is contrary to natural law, or some other principle of right reason or true social ethic, citizens are obliged to follow. This does not mean that citizens cannot challenge or criticize the law, but it does mean that citizens are obliged to follow the law.

And that’s about all I will say in this blogpost. Perhaps next time I will address whether recreational marijuana use is a public evil, or maybe where the state gets its authority.

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