As of July 1st, this year, recreational marijuana was legal in nine states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington), as well as the District of Columbia. In this paper, I will be arguing why recreational marijuana should be legal nationwide, and I will be using John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism to frame my argument.
Mill defines utilitarianism as a moral theory, that actions are right as long they are intended to promote overall human happiness, or as long they are doing no harm and not the reverse. Mill claims happiness is the basis of morality and thinks people don’t really desire anything but happiness. He supports this by showing that all other objects of people’s desires are either meant to acquire happiness or included in the definition of happiness. Many people misunderstand the theory of utilitarianism by seeing utility as the opposite of pleasure. Mill observes that really, utility is defined as pleasure itself and the absence of pain. He goes, as far as to say, another name for utility is the Greatest Happiness Principle. This principle states ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.’ Pleasure and the absence of pain are in this case, the only things desirable as well as the only things inherently ‘good.’ Therefore, making events or experiences desirable only when they’re a source for pleasure; actions are good when they lead to a higher level of general happiness, and bad when they decrease the level. The next observation Mill makes is on the claim that it is demeaning to reduce the whole meaning of life to pleasure. Mill replies to this claim by stating that once people are made aware of how capable their mental power is, they will never be happy to not use it to its full potential; therefore, making happiness a sign that we are exercising our highest mental power or “faculties.” It is true that some pleasures may be demeaning however; this does not mean that all of them are, since some are just more intrinsically valuable than others. When making a moral judgment on an action, utilitarianism considers not just the quantity, but also the quality of the pleasures resulting from it.
More than half of US adults, over 128 million people, have tried marijuana despite it being an illegal drug under federal law. The United States government claims marijuana use is harmful and addictive, landing it a place on the Controlled Substances list as a schedule 1 class drug. Being a schedule 1 class drug makes the possession and use of marijuana illegal, while more harmful drugs like nicotine and alcohol are legal for personal use. Schedule 1 class drugs are illegal because they have high abuse potential, no medical use, and severe safety concerns; good examples being narcotics such as LSD and heroin, Marijuana is also included as a Class 1 drug despite it being legal in some states and it being used as a medicinal drug in some states. This will be a utilitarian’s perspective on legalizing marijuana.
Mill’s utilitarianism theory supports nationwide legalization of marijuana because it’s a decision that is made for the overall general happiness of people. The theory of utilitarianism perfectly applies to the issue of marijuana legalization, since it is able to justify marijuana usage because of the way that the drug is meant to enhance the mind to be happier. Mill claimed, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Interpretation of the utilitarianism theory leads me to believe a person’s desire to smoke marijuana is not immoral and is right if he/she receives the expected effect and causes no harm to themselves or others (“absence of pain.”) In this case, marijuana usage cannot be viewed, as immoral, smoking marijuana is right because it promotes happiness. The smoker becomes relaxed and happy, that is why marijuana is called a recreational drug.
A well-known counterargument to marijuana usage is the eventual harm of smoking, since inhaling tobacco can lead to the smoker getting emphysema or cancer. A person with this viewpoint could also point out that marijuana itself has negative effects such as influence on brain cells. Marijuana use alters the brain and its development. Scientists have studied that early cannabis use could result in psychotic diseases later on in life. In this case, sticking to the utilitarianism theory, smoking cannabis becomes wrong, because eventually it will cause pain to the smoker. So in this sense, utilitarian idea argues against legalization of marijuana.
But, my reply to this argument is, considering some people are prescribed this drug as medicine, and need it to succumb pain, it is against utilitarianism to prevent these people from escaping their pain, taking their medicine, and achieving happiness. Marijuana is harmful is some ways, but helpful in more. Would it be ethical to deny a dying person that is in pain, marijuana for comfort? Or would it be ethical to deny someone suffering of chronic pain a natural pain reliever with less harmful side effects? It is selfish to prevent your good neighbor from using his mental faculties to its full capacity, as well as it is selfish to refuse to let them escape their pain and achieve relaxation/happiness, so it is a decision that would be made against the greater good. Abusing this drug and heavy use of it is when negative affects come into play. On the other hand, using marijuana correctly for medical treatment is becoming more popular. What causes good can do no harm if it isn’t overused. So then legalization of marijuana is justified by the satisfaction a smoker gets from the process of smoking and makes it morally right.
Another significant counterargument is that marijuana is an addictive drug, and legalizing it would only increase abusers dependence on it. Heavy users who stop using marijuana will suffer withdrawal symptoms, like any drug abuse, like depression, anxiety, and even insomnia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as many as four million Americans meet the criteria for abuse, dependence, or addiction to the drug. Since 2002, of the many people reported using in the Journal of Drug Issues, 68% of them reported daily, or near-daily use. Since legalization will grant full access to the drug for everyone, more people will be smoking it, in turn worsening their physical and mostly mental health condition. In the utilitarian’s view, this decision is not right or moral.
In reply to this argument, I will argue that people buying their marijuana off the street do no know what they are smoking on. Legalization would only make it’s use safer for everyone, since whatever is in street drugs is way worse for health than what is in prescribed drugs. Legalization would lead to more pleasure for all who need it. Usage of marijuana is a free choice, and legalization doesn’t imply government enforcing the over usage or abuse of it. The sales would be held in special drugstores, called dispensaries, in limited amounts and would be strictly controlled by the government, so people wouldn’t have the ability to purchase high quantities of marijuana to abuse it and impair their health. There are various other prescribed narcotics that are more prone to abuse as well as addiction. It is almost in the common good of people buying off the street and addicts as well, for legalization to happen since it would promote their overall health as well as pleasure.
Some may even go as far as to counter argue whether utilitarianism is a solid argument for legalization. It is the idea that happiness doesn’t always mean decisions made for good and good things happening. Happiness is subjective in this perspective, and some many find it in clothes like others may find it in murders. So, to go, as far as to say that just because the people smoking may be happy it should be legal nationwide, may seem like a stretch.
In contrast, I will argue that Mill argues the utilitarian’s standard for judging acts is whether it’s being done for the happiness of all people, not of the person committing the act alone. A person can’t value their own happiness over the happiness of others; and Mill believes law plus an education should help to place this mindset into individuals. But this doesn’t mean that people’s motives need to be to serve the greater common good, since utilitarianism isn’t concerned with the motives behind an action. The morality of the action depends on the goodness of its result only. Given that the result of this decision would promote happiness as well as give wider access to a big group of people, and not just one, makes the decision to make marijuana legal moral and right.
Overall, I think I successfully provide a utilitarian’s argument on the legalization of marijuana. Arguments of legalization go back decades now, seeing traces of it being used as medicinal remedies all the way in B.C. times. Public support for legalizing marijuana went form 12% in 1969 to 66% today. People in support of legalizing recreational use even say it will add billions to the economy, create even more jobs, and get rid of the racial divide that is seen in today’s society when it comes to marijuana enforcement. In the end, if it is achieving greater good for everyone, then there should be nothing wrong with legalizing the drug.