Weeds of Destruction: The Moral Case for Marijuana Legalization

Though I won't be the first, I certainly don't want to be the last to congratulate the lawmakers in Colorado and Washington for finally coming to their senses and legalizing marijuana. Though their point may be to increase tax revenue, it's the end result that counts, and hopefully the rest of the country won't be far behind.

On the other hand, David Brooks, in his opinion piece in last Friday's New York Times ("Weed: Been There, Done That," Jan 3, 2014), made an interesting and thought-provoking case for keeping marijuana illegal. After citing various debatable statistics as to weed's deleterious health effects, safety issues, etc., he argues that the best reason for keeping marijuana illegal is a moral one.

Brooks told us about his experience with marijuana, and what led him to quit. Smoking weed made Brooks act silly and do stupid things: It made him screw up a school presentation, which was very embarrassing and he also saw how it ruined a friend's life. He and his other friends developed higher pleasures such as art and science. But, most importantly -- and he's certainly onto something here -- staying straight helped him develop a more integrated and interesting personality.

Although, like Brooks, I gave up marijuana early, my own experience with the wacky weed was somewhat different. As a young boy, I was something of an extrovert. I enjoyed sports and, even more so, being the class clown. Endowed with a razor-sharp wit, I got a kick out of sassing the teacher and disrupting class. Throughout my grade school years, I flat out refused to do any homework whatsoever.

Smoking weed turned me inward, made me more introspective. Music took on a new dimension for me, as did poetry and visual art. I also started to take an interest in school work. In particular, math became fascinating for me. I was awed by the way it all hung together, by the crystalline purity of its inner architecture. In short, I surely would have dropped out of high school if not for weed, and who knows what would have become of me. I flunked four subjects my freshman year, then started smoking weed and made good grades for the rest of my high school years.

The reason I quit smoking, once I entered college and got away from my stoner friends, was that weed had a tendency to make me anxious and paranoid. It made me unsociable, and nervous around people, especially girls. Weed made me want to withdraw into my own little world.

The point is that different people are affected differently by weed. Those who have bad experiences with it -- such as Brooks and myself -- tend to quit. Of course, weed, like all drugs, may cause problems. It may even seem to ruin some people's lives, but on the other hand, those people probably would have found some other way to ruin their lives had weed not been available. For most people who end up smoking it long term, it seems to simply relax them. They go about their lives like the rest of us -- they just smoke a little weed now and again.

Brooks argued that society has an interest in promoting a certain sort of person, a self-realized individual rather than, say, a stoner. Can't say I disagree with him here. To this end, Brooks believed society should "subtly" encourage productive pursuits such as the enjoyment of the arts and nature, and discourage getting stoned. We're still on the same page. Perhaps politicians should make speeches in favor of clean living. But how he gets from subtly discouraging to criminalizing marijuana use is something that escapes me.

There's a difference between persuasion and coercion, and what it all boils down to is whether you want a sort of nanny state, or whether you think people should be free to make their own decisions, for good or bad. Yes, it's tragic when someone abuses drugs, but compassion and a helping hand is generally what they need rather than being threatened and criminalized.

Brooks observed that people avoid discussing the morality of marijuana use when debating its legalization, and he thinks this may be because they don't want to admit that one sort of life might be better than another. Well, I, for one, am perfectly willing to admit that one sort of life may be better than another sort -- a life dedicated to helping the poor, for instance, certainly seems morally superior to a life grubbing for money on Wall Street. By the same token, a life of minding your own business is probably superior to a life of meddling in other people's lives.

Absent an external authority -- and centuries-old books won't help -- morality implies a consideration for others as moral agents themselves. If you and I can make moral judgments, aren't others allowed to as well? Of course, some arguments are better than others, and not everyone can be right, but where there is rational disagreement, we should err in the direction of respecting others' opinions.

Society may have an interest in producing citizens who don't use drugs, but it has an even greater interest in producing citizens who can think for themselves and make their own moral choices.