The Moral Dilemma of Cannabis Legalization

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Throughout our history, legal and illegal drugs have been a topic of discussion and a concern for society as some of the worst drugs ever have made it to the streets of our communities and destroy lives every day. Illegal drugs like meth, cocaine, LSD, and heroin are just some of the major drugs that have left their footprints in communities and put people who use them in danger of losing more than their freedom.

One specific illegal drug, which has differing opinions about its use and danger, is called cannabis sativa, or marijuana. Cannabis is a plant that is very versatile and can grow wild in many of the temperate and tropical areas of the world (Editor, 2013). The main active ingredient in cannabis is THC, delta-9 tetrahydro-cannabinol, from which the user can feel different short-term effects like a feeling of well-being, drowsiness, increased appetite, bloodshot eyes, and anxiety or paranoia (Editor, 2013). Cannabis has been a topic for scrutiny in our society for a very long time but recent changes to laws and legalization have really changed people’s perspective on the drug and its popularity continues to grow.

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Legalization of cannabis began to take shape back in 1996 in California, as the state officially made medical marijuana use legal. Now more than twenty years later there are over 29 states that have legalized the drug in some form with states like Colorado and Washington fully legalizing the recreational use of the drug (Trumble, 2017). Most of those states have only legalized the medicinal use of cannabis as it has shown to have many health benefits. Studies have suggested that the medicinal use of cannabis has helped lower the suicide rate in some states for a particular demographic, males age 20 to 39 (Dills, Goffard, & Miron, 2016, p. 11). Cannabis has also been used to treat many other illnesses and is widely recommended to be used for pain which is much safer for a person to use and they would avoid using highly addictive and harmful prescriptions like painkillers and tranquilizers.

On the other hand, cannabis does come with its risks when it comes to legalization and recreational use. Cannabis studies have been mainly focused on the short-term effects of its use and the studies for the long-term effects are still in the infancy stages of their research. There are also concerns on how the legalization of the drug will affect teenagers and if their use will increase.

One of the most difficult obstacles after legalization is how corporations will manage to keep the new promising business ethical in terms of how they operate and promote the drug to the public. Public perception on cannabis has been improving over the years but we are still far from completely accepting its legalization and recreational use. In order for this new industry to gain ethical recognition from the public and become a consumer friendly business, executives must take into consideration the second and often most powerful aspect of human nature, the desire and need to care for others and for ideals and causes that transcend one’s self-interest (Mackey & Sisodia, 2014, p. 16).


The legalization of cannabis has had to go through some major obstacles, especially since the drug is still federally illegal. Julie Steiner, a professor who teaches cannabis law and policy at Western New England School of Law, raised a question of social equality when it came to the legalization of cannabis and the programs that should be created to help those communities impacted the most. Ms. Steiner states that marijuana prohibition, as part of the war on drugs, has had a very disproportionate impact on our society by targeting communities with minority populations (Rifkin, 2019). Ms. Steiner’s proposal was that as the new marijuana industry developed, there should be specific preferences given to those who have been the victims of the tough cannabis laws and the impact that it has had on their well-being and criminal record. Records show that arrests and incarcerations in these minority communities far exceeds those in other communities that have much smaller to no minorities in them.

Then there is the debate on how to change and create laws for cannabis that would protect their businesses and stakeholders as legalizing on the state level doesn’t change the fact that cannabis is still illegal on a federal level. There have been numerous circumstances that have affected cannabis businesses and their stakeholders like banks not wanting to work with them because of conflicts of state and federal laws (Quinton & Simpson, 2019). This makes it extremely difficult for people who are starting up cannabis businesses to legally and effectively establish themselves as legitimate entrepreneurs.

Economic Impact and Corporate Social Responsibility

States that have legalized cannabis have been able to take advantage of the drugs popularity and generate huge amounts of revenue through taxation and the selling of cannabis products. Two marijuana analysis and investment firms released a report that stated that the cannabis industry has been steadily growing as cannabis sales grew from $4.6 billion in 2014 to $5.4 billion in 2016 (Hauser, 2016). With this continued growth, funds are considering the ethics of investing in marijuana. If the corporation that investors are looking to work with can relate to the standard of corporate social responsibility, holds that business has a social responsibility to do good things and to make society a better place (Hartman, DesJardins, & MacDonald, 2018, p. 179), then it would be able to ethically justify investing in such an industry.

Cannabis legalization has also created a huge opportunity for job growth in the states that have legalized the drug. According to a research study conducted by hub leafly’s 2019 cannabis jobs count, the cannabis industry employs more than 211,000 full-time workers in the U.S. (Murphy, 2019) with a total of 300,000 if you include indirect jobs associated with the industry. This type of job growth is huge, and it provides communities with job opportunities and self-growth as more jobs become available and unemployment rates continue to sink.

Corporate social responsibility, the ethical responsibilities that a business has to the society in which it operates (Hartman, DesJardins, & MacDonald, 2018, p. 180), needs to be the foundation that new cannabis industries use to build their product and engage with their stakeholders in an ethical and legal manner. When this is done correctly, not only does the business flourish with profit but the communities and the other stakeholders who support the business will be able to reap the rewards of a tightly knit community focused business. Every conscious business has a higher purpose which needs to address the fundamental questions as to why the business exists and why do they need to exist. This purpose is the glue that holds the organization together and no matter its specific intent, the purpose reduces the friction that can come from inside of the organization by pointing everyone in the same direction and moving together in sync (Mackey & Sisodia, 2014, p. 46).

Without this approach, a business could put themselves in jeopardy of losing more than their profits as the business would ultimately fail as their purpose would be focused on the wrong things. Take Enron for example, their purpose was misaligned with what a business should be and they were worried about making profits more than they were concerned for their stakeholders. Enron’s real trouble came when their market-to-market accounting approach failed them miserably and they misled investors into the value of their stocks and business portfolios (Palepu, 2019, p. 5). This is what led to the biggest corporate financial meltdown that we had seen in the modern era and is a prime example of what a lack of corporate responsibility can do to a business when their ethical ideologies are absent from their business practices.

Ethics and Business

With the cannabis industry gaining popularity among voters and more states are looking to legalize the drug in some form during the coming elections, businesses will need to focus on the ethical dimensions of how they are marketing, selling, and promoting the product. To do this, executives will need to stray from the “business first” concepts that seem to have been overwhelmingly accepted by most of the top businesses in this country. Executives will be expected to have a high sense of moral values to avoid any conflicts of interest, can arise when a person’s ethical obligations in her or his professional duties clash with personal interests (Hartman, DesJardins, & MacDonald, 2018, p. 499), that can manipulate their decisions and the way that the business is conducted. This can have a negative impact on not only the business itself, but it can also feed into the negative narrative that many people have about capitalism in general. According to the book Conscious Capitalism, by Raj Sisodia and John Mackey, “Capitalism is portrayed as exploiting workers, cheating consumers, causing inequality by benefiting the rich but not the poor, and destroying the environment” (Mackey & Sisodia, 2014, p. 15). These narratives of businesses in general will likely carry on to the cannabis industry along with all of the other moral questions that much of society has about legalization.

The cannabis industry will need to really establish a solid ethical foundation in order for public perception to improve over time and keep the industry alive. As stated by Marisa Macho, MBA 240 classmate, “Corporations are primary players in our economy, environment, and overall experience of everyday lives. This understanding that there is more to business than just creating returns for shareholders is part of being a conscious leader” (Macho, 2020). Without this leadership, employees can feel disengaged and a diminished sense of moral, like Mr. Bell from class who’s leader wasn’t engaged enough with him and the team by not being available when they needed her (Bell, 2020).

Canopy Growth Corp. is a cannabis company that has taken some initiatives to promote ethical business practices along with other companies in the same field. This alliance was formed to prove to consumers that the cannabis industry can be good corporate citizens. Canopy Growth Corp. has committed to setting a high bar for the industry by accepting and practicing the five page “social responsibility framework” that outlines the guiding principles that include transparency and responsibility, like prohibiting the sales of cannabis products to minors (Editor, Marijuana Industry Sets Environmental, Ethical Goals, 2019). These principles also focus on developing policies to manage greenhouse emissions and using package materials that reduce the consumption of overall raw materials and special focus on using farm practices that reduce environmental harm (Editor, Marijuana Industry Sets Environmental, Ethical Goals, 2019). This fundamental approach provides a foundation for Canopy Growth Corp., and other cannabis businesses in the coalition, to establish on and prove that the cannabis industry will be one of ethical values that serve for the better of our communities and environment. Universally this approach will provide the industry with components from all three major ethical frameworks which are; utilitarianism, ethical tradition that directs us to decide based on overall consequences of our acts; principle-based framework, which directs us to act on moral principles; and virtue ethics, tells us to consider the moral character of individuals and how character traits can influence life (Hartman, DesJardins, & MacDonald, 2018, p. 68).

What more can cannabis industries do to prove that they will operate in an ethical manner? The answer is complicated because there is still a negative stigma attached to the use of cannabis that will follow the drug for as long as we know. The key is for cannabis businesses to have more than one plan on how to successfully build an ethical business, in the words of classmate Brad Hauptmann, “There is an old saying that Plan A is always doomed to fail so expect Plan B to take affect at a moment’s notice” (Hauptmann, 2020). With this in mind, cannabis businesses can have more than one solid plan of execution for providing ethical business practices to the industry and prove to be one of the leading markets that focuses on the community and environment.

Canopy Growth Corp. has embraced a values-based culture, a corporate culture in which conformity to a statement of values and principles is the prevailing model for ethical behaviour (Hartman, DesJardins, & MacDonald, 2018, p. 119), within their business to provide values and ethics to everyone who represents the business and to all of the stakeholders that accompany a large institution like this. This will be detrimental to future growth as college students are now able to take courses in relation to the cannabis industry, thus providing future professionals for the business. The University of Maryland announced in June of 2019 that its School of Pharmacy will offer a master’s degree in medical cannabis, and Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science will also add a new course called, “Cannabis: Biology, Society, and Industry” (Butchireddygari, 2019). Canopy Growth Corp. has developed and accepted a code of business conduct and ethics that is outlined in thirteen different codes which are general, reporting violations, disciplinary matters, integrity of records and compliance with sound accounting practices, protection and proper use of assets, confidentiality, conflict of interest, improper business payments, laws-statutes-regulations and stock exchange policies, amendment-modification-waiver and termination code, public company reporting and other public communication, fair dealing, and administration of the code (Linton, 2018), all of which can be reviewed in great detail on the company’s website. Following all of the fundamental values that Canopy Growth and the other businesses in the alliance have accepted, future cannabis businesses can expect to continue to grow and provide many different opportunities for the future.


After doing research and reading about all the different laws that are being looked at for the legalization of cannabis, it is easy to understand why there has been differing opinions about the matter for so long. It is hard to argue the medical research that has shown cannabis to be a useful medicine for people who suffer from different ailments and still condemn the drug for being too dangerous. Cannabis hasn’t proved to be as dangerous as two of the most consumed legal drugs that we have today, alcohol and tobacco. If the cannabis industry

Cannabis still has a long road to go when it comes to full acceptance and integration into our society. For decades, the drug has been unfairly criticized in society and its outlook is starting to look more promising. It will take strong leadership to adopt and create a culture of corporate social responsibility, the ethical expectations that society has for business (Hartman, DesJardins, & MacDonald, 2018, p. 177), and ethically run the business to the standards that would be no less than that you would expect from a major corporation that cares about its communities.

There will always be concerns when legalizing a drug that has been labelled as dangerous and addictive, but with proper communication and education on the drug and its benefits and risks, people would be able to make a more “informed” decision when thinking about how bad cannabis really is. When legalization takes a foot into new territory, that state will benefit with the revenue that will be generated through taxation and sales of the products not to mention the jobs that this new industry will create. We need to educate ourselves about the differences between drugs like cannabis and other more dangerous drugs like LSD or meth and take the time to understand the many different benefits and opportunities that this drug creates. I didn’t even mention hemp in this essay but hemp is its own juggernaut who could lay waste to the lumber industry if we ever decide to save our trees and start using something that is just as reliable and does less damage to the environment when it is harvested.


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