Legalization of Marijuana: Some Ethical Reflections on Pot Smoking

E. Christian Brugger
February 20, 2013 © 2012 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

"Now that it's legal, is it also moral?"

Since the November elections, I've fielded this question a dozen or so times from fellow Coloradans. Voters here adopted Amendment 64 by a margin of 55%-45% decriminalizing the use of marijuana for adults 21 years or older and its possession up to an ounce. Washington State also passed Initiative 502 (56%-44%) permitting something similar.

Prior to its legalization, morally conscientious people had a fairly clear reason for concluding that pot smoking should be avoided: it's against the law (a misdemeanor offense in most states for possessing small amounts). Even if they didn't know all the reasons for its criminalization, they believed the law was not unjust in prohibiting its use, and they rightly reasoned that good citizens have an obligation to support just laws.

Now that Colorado and Washington State have decriminalized pot smoking, the argument from the law is less persuasive. (There's still a federal law against its recreational use, but Obama has made clear that enforcing it in the new pot-friendly states would not be a "top priority" of his Justice Department.)

So how should morally conscientious people assess the situation? Is pot smoking okay? Or is it wrong? Are the marijuana laws of Colorado and Washington just laws? I offer my own reflections on the situation.

To assess the morality of marijuana use, we first need to be clear about its effects on people who ingest it.

Psychological and physical effects of marijuana use

The intoxicating chemical in marijuana is called THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). It acts on the brain by stimulating the reward system in a way that causes a kind of euphoria (a "high"). The high results from a release of the chemical dopamine, as with other intoxicating drugs. Although relaxation may accompany the high, along with laughter, a modified perception of time and increased appetite, it may also cause users to feel anxiety, fear or panic. When the drug wears off, users often feel sleepy and depressed.

During marijuana-induced intoxication, one's short-term memory is impaired, as is one's attention and one's ability to shift focus and make judgments. One's coordination, balance and reaction time are also impaired making driving while intoxicated a dangerous business.

Persistent effects of chronic marijuana use include long-term memory and learning impairment, addiction, and respiratory problems similar to those associated with cigarette smoking.

Pot smoking also correlates to long-term anxiety and depression including in those who no longer smoke it, to the loss of motivation, and to an increased risk of psychosis, although the research on the relationship between marijuana use and mental illness have yet to demonstrate a causal effect.

Is smoking pot wrong?

After assessing what it does to you, the next question that moral philosophers ask is, what is the object of the act of smoking dope? By "object" (or "moral object") we mean the proximate state of affairs an actor is interested in realizing in and through doing what he's doing. The object does not include all the foreseeable effects that the choice will bring about, only those effects the actor commits himself to causing.

Recreational pot-smokers use marijuana in order to get high, that is, to induce in themselves the euphoria mentioned above. They don't smoke it in order to feel anxious or depressed, to lose motivation, impair their long-term memory, or contract bronchitis. To the extent they believe that these repugnant effects may occur, they accept them as unwelcomed side-effects, but they don't, precisely speaking, choose them.

So the moral object is the euphoria (the "high"). They intend, i.e., choose here and now, to get high. What's another way of describing the high? It is a pleasurable state of consciousness entailing an alteration of one's perceptions and faculties of cognition. So they intend to alter their cognitive state.

Since human cognition is a precondition for making any choices, good or bad, to impair our cognition means impairing our ability to make choices. Morally conscientious people know that consistently acting well, even when we're cognitively at the top of our games, is difficult. We face temptations from within in the form of unruly emotions and outside in the form of alluring self-destructive alternatives and the inducements of non-conscientious people.

When we're stoned, it's even more difficult to make good choices, for example, to act modestly, to treat members of the opposite sex with dignity and respect, to speak with due moderation, to maintain the reputations of others, to not eat or drink to excess, to be faithful to daily prayer, to keep faith in the face of difficult circumstances, etc.

Sacred Scripture has little to say about getting high, but it has a lot to say about drunkenness. St. Paul teaches that drunkenness is wrong because it prevents us from making wise choices and discerning God's will (Eph. 5:18); drunkenness is the behavior of those who walk in darkness (Rom. 13:13). Jesus condemns drunkenness because it weighs down the heart and makes us inattentive to the coming of the Lord (Luke 21:31).

We can level these same charges against getting stoned. The intoxication that marijuana induces impairs our consciousness, makes us less receptive to carrying out God's plan for our lives, and lends to conduct unbecoming of a Christian.

Therefore if we smoke pot with the intention of getting high, we do wrong.

What if we smoke pot for therapeutic ("medicinal") purposes? If our intention in smoking it is to heal or prevent dysfunction, including serious pain, then our moral object is different from the object of one who smokes it to get stoned. The object is the therapeutic benefit we're after.

Whether we ought to smoke it for therapeutic purposes should be decided in a similar manner to the way we decide whether to accept other types of medical treatments: i.e., through assessing the benefit and burdens of the proposal. If narcotics such as morphine licitly can be taken for therapeutic purposes, then certainly pot can be smoked. But because it causes all sorts of harmful effects, including intoxication, there must be a sufficiently serious reason for adopting it as a treatment and there should be no other reasonably accessible less harmful way of achieving the therapeutic benefit we're after.

How about a joint at the end of the day to calm the nerves as one might drink a glass of white wine or beer?

If it was theoretically possible to be interested in recreational pot smoking without being interested in getting high, then 'smoking it to relax' might be innocent. But this seems to me counterfactual since nobody smokes dope merely to relax and not also to get high. When's the last time you heard someone say, "hey, I'm looking for some weed, but I don't want it to get me high"?

I've heard one last argument: since the State will secure tax dollars on marijuana sales, and the money can be used to help the poor, doesn't that justify the State in legalizing dope? If the behavior being taxed is good or morally neutral, then deriving tax money from it might be okay. But if the behavior from which taxes are being derived is manifestly destructive and morally wrong, which we've argued that smoking pot to get high is, then making money on the behavior is not a valid justification for legalization.