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Historic Night for Marijuana Legalization, too!

Another interesting result in the 2012 election is the legalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in CO and WA. Rachel Maddow offered a deft comparison to the end of Prohibition and the questions that remain now:

"When prohibition ended in 1933, Americans could legally buy and sell and drink booze for the first time in thirteen years," Maddow says. "And people were obviously psyched when prohibition ended, but there was a lot of policy to figure out in terms of how the country would sell and regulate alcohol. Would cities do it? Would states do it? The federal government? Should you have to apply for a license to sell alcohol? How old should you have to be in order to drink alcohol?...States came up with their own answers to those questions and the laws between the states -- even all these decades later -- are still really diverse."

Connecticut and Massachusetts both passed medical marijuana laws this year, joining 16 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing pot use for various health conditions, while the CO and WA versions are explicitly for recreational use. So what might Thomas Aquinas think of all this?

Civil law, per Thomas, is not intended to legislate every virtue nor to prohibit every vice:

[H]uman laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (Summa Theologiae, I IIae, q. 96.2c)

Moreover, laws too that are too strict for "the majority," "unable to bear such precepts, would [lead them to] break out into yet greater evils." (Loc.cit, ad 2.) Certainly this kind of question is relevant regarding pot legalization. There's little evidence that marijuana's health risks are worse than those of a number of legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. From what I see at WebMD, the health risks seem greatest for heavy smokers. Legalization doesn't seem to be contrary to the common good, at least not more than the legal drugs we already tolerate. Another factor related to Thomas' view of civil law is this: something like 43% of Americans have at least experimented with pot. I don't have data, but I suspect there's a generational shift: even when I was growing up (a long time ago now...) it was ordinary to have both alcohol and weed at social events. And if you've been to a rock concert lately, there's lots and lots of folks smoking. Gateway drug? No real evidence supports that except--my concern is that your local pot dealer also has other drugs to sell you, hard drugs for which questions of legalization are more difficult, (but still not a slam dunk against, it seems to me.) So a kind of social gateway, perhaps, in which you have access to truly harmful drugs by having to go to an illegal purveyor instead of a legal smoke shop. Plus, since you already have discovered that pot, while illegal, isn't really harmful, why not try the dealer's other wares? And so Thomas' fear that we'll break out into greater evils is at least plausible.All this before we deal with the larger justice issues of who goes to jail and why, and the effects of large drug organizations on the security of national governments...So all in all, I can see a pretty decent Thomistic argument in favor of legalization. That doesn't solve all the particulars of sales where, how and by whom that Maddow raised, but might at least give Catholics a place to begin. Of course, as in all Thomistic discernments of particular courses of action, other prudential persons might think otherwise...so...whaddya think?

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I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana, mainly because keeping it illegal has spawned a drug trade whose costs in the flowering of gangs and the ruin of neighborhoods we have not even begun to fathom.Of course making it legal doesn't mean it's moral, in the Thomistic sense of doing what will cause you to flourish into the happiness of the contemplation of God. Anyone who has lost family or friends to alcoholism knows the price of abuse of *that* quite legal drug. I say use the money for rehabilitation rather than incarceration; practically speaking it does a whole lot more good.

"The law is required to be tolerant of many evils that morality condemns." John Courtney Murray, SJ., quoted by John E. Brandel, Dear Constituent (article), "Commonweal", 12/1/89.

For those who can access archived Commonweal articles, the Brandel comment is from here: http://search.opinionarchives.com/Summary/Commonweal/V116I21P5-1.htm

Practical question: why do Colorado and Washington see legalization of marijuana as a source of revenue? If you buy it at your local store and pay a purchase tax, that will go into state coffers, of course. But if you grow it yourself -- and in some places in grows like a weed -- how will that benefit the state? Or is that kind of private cultivation illegal in CO and WA?

I don't see anything at all immoral about the responsible recreational use of marijuana. I think in moderation it's the equivalent of a having a glass of wine once in a while. In excess it wold be problematic, but, doesn't it seem much less harmful overall than alcohol? I know alcoholics that have lost job , family and home. But you never hear about people's lives destroyed because they smoked too much pot.

I believe the lessons learned by Prohibition are persuasive arguments to legalize marijuana. I'd want it to be regulated and taxed, and in fact heavily regulated and heavily taxed.FWIW - I was part of the high school Class of '79, which at one time was - and perhaps still is - the senior class among which marijuana usage peaked in the US. Many of the teens with whom I grew up have had their lives compromised in some way because of marijuana use. Legal penalties are part of that life damage but by no means all of it. My own observation is that there aren't many regular-but-casual marijuana users, in the way that there are many regular-but-casual drinkers. Most people either dabble in it once in a very great while but can truthfully say they're really not marijuana users; or they become regular users - and incur the heavy costs that come with habitual marijuana usage. It's not conducive to responsible and mature behavior.None if this is social science; it's just my own observation. But my view is that the "dead head" is more than a cartoon caricature. If it becomes legal, I'll still tell my children not to use it and will punish them if they do, and I'd have no problem telling people from the pulpit of my parish church that they shouldn't use marijuana.

Not just marijuana laws need reforming. The whole "War on Drugs" must be ended ASAP. This is the moral equivalent of ending slavery in the 19th century. Drugs must be dealt with as a public health issue, not a criminal issue.Our jails and prisons, certainly here in CA and similarly across the nation, are overflowing with non-violent offenders incarcerated for some kind of drug prohibition. The US outranks China and every other repressive regime in the world for incarcerating large segments of its population. Most of our inmates are disproportionately young men of color. Most inmates are incarcerated for drug-related purposes - a majority of them non-violent.It is not an accident that prison sentences for crack and methamphetamine possession and use - drugs that are channelled purposefully into impoverished communities - have higher mandated prison sentences than for their chemically identical cousin, cocaine - the drug of choice for those who have substantial disposable incomes (read, whites).From my time practicing at a local juvenile hall, I can't recall one middle or upper class white kid that was arrested for marijuana possession - although you could smell the pot smoke in the air if you just drive around some of the tonier neighborhoods of Marin County. Most of the drug arrest at JuV were for marijuana possession, and almost all of those arrest where kids of color.To the south across the border in Mexico, a bloody war is raging where violent, armed criminal gangs outgun the Mexican government because of drug trafficking that supplies mainly US drug habits. Thousands of people have been killed. It seems that American gun suppliers with the tacit approval of American politicians, like that wacka-doodle Jan Brewer in Arizona, have been arming all sides of the Mexican drug cartel war. Wake up, America! Our Prison Industrial Complex, increasingly given over to "for-profit corporations" is the economic, political and moral equivalent of slavery in the ante-bellum South. More times than we would like to admit prisons are located in rural areas of the US where they are the major local employer for mostly whites constituting the major economic enterprise infusing $millions in these communities - especially now that vulture capitalist like Mitt Romney over the last 30 years have shipped most factories and good paying jobs to low-wage slave economies mostly in repressive countries in Asia and Latin America.Slave-prison plantations, where especially the poor are economically exploited, thrive in America today. The question is really whether Christians today have the moral fortitude to mount a second abolitionist movement: END THE DRUG WAR!Don't look for the morally corrupt American Catholic bishops to lead the way! The hierarchs are too consumed with preserving their own political power and investment portfolios, controlling women's vaginas, and hiding their shame at maintaining the dominance of their homosexual subculture in the clergy.A good number of the major contributors to the anti-pot smoking forces in these referendum elections [besides alcohol distillers and tobacco companies - now there are some good corporate citizens???] are the prison guard unions and the private prison corporations - both of whom have the politicians dancing at the end of a string for their campaign cash. They know that if pot smoking is decriminalized, their gravy train is over. Wake up, America!

Hi Nickolas,While it is true that some folks will continue growing their own, most people will simply find it more convenient to just buy the pre-packaged (and probably better tasting) MJ cigarettes. Relying on this aspect of human nature then, if the states require an mj cigarette tax stamp on each pack sold, like they do with every pack of tobacco cigarettes, they will see a rise in both cigarette tax and sales tax revenues.If a state has a lot of mj smokers, legalizing, regulating and taxing mj cigarettes is probably a reasonable financial move for that state.

And I imagine, once its commercially grown, the quality will improve. (like the difference between wine from a vineyard vs. homegrown.) Maybe Colorado Springs will become the American Amsterdam. People can go there on vacation to smoke pot. Not that Colorado isn't already a fabulous vacation spot.

Per Jim Js rant . . .Dont look for the morally corrupt American Catholic bishops to lead the way! . . Oh please spare us your moral indignation on this it is not that big of a deal one way or the other.In any case, marijuana laws are not in the purview of the bishops, any more than tobacco or liquor laws are. Many a bishop likes a good cigar and a glass of brandy; the phrase fruit of the vine and work of human hands comes to mind. Of course people must be prudent in using treats like tobacco, booze, candy, soda pop; one cannot have treats all the time. The good bishops would remind people to be responsible, prudent, and to not fall into gluttony or sloth. We also must not eat too much food, as that too is the sin of gluttony.That we have laws prohibiting the possession and use of certain things like marijuana is the responsibility not of bishops but of the civil government of our nation. As I have noted time and again, all societies have the right to organize themselves as the majority in the society sees fit. In other words, when a majority of Americans wanted to prohibit alcohol, as a nation we were well within our rights to try that. It failed of course, but as a society, we nonetheless had the right to give it a try. As a society we have until now, basically preferred a prohibition on marijuana, we have spent a lot of money to keep it that way and that is our right. Now it seems though, that in some areas of this great land, in some states, the majority of the locals want to try legalizing marijuana.Unlike legalizing booze back in the 1930s, as a practical matter, there is no Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the possession and consumption of marijuana just federal law. And so if enough localities decide they want to permit, regulate and tax marijuana, ultimately the federal government will have to follow suite.Either way it goes, marijuana smoking is no more a matter of morality than tobacco or booze. The important point is that the majority ultimately will - and should - have the say regarding it.As a side note, I suspect many federal employees do not like the specter of not being paid to chase down MJ weeds and growers from NY to CA, and so they will wail to high heaven about losing their jobs, federal unions will fight this all the way, the prison guard unions and the lawyers will fight this also, as for them, there is a lot of money to be made (jobs, pensions) in "fighting" this relatively easy portion of the so-called war of drugs.It will be interesting; we will watch and see.

Just recently I saw in the health news that marijuana use in teens is linked to cognitive damage, but I guess that might be also true of alcohol? When I was in high school/college I used drugs and I found smoking dope to impair judgement, but then so did drinking. If they'd only legalize cocaine ...

Really, Ken? "It's not that big a deal ..."?Don't be so dismissive, so quickly, so easily. I thought that was what the MORAL lesson behind the parable of the Good Samaritan when he came upon the victim in the ditch? A large proportion of the kids in CYA (California Youth Authority - an euphemism for "prisons for children") are Latinos - most are from Catholic families, at least nominally I believe. The very ones that Catholic hierarchs are always posturing with when they want to establish their "concern" bona fides with the poor. No racism operating here??? The majority of these children are in the "system" because of marijuana/drug possession. Once in the juvenile penal system the chances they will NOT graduate to the "big house" diminishes rapidly. Prisons for children are a big black hole from which no light escapes.Since you, Ken, mentioned the comparative "morality" of marijuana - but didn't mention the immorality of the wreckage to the lives of thousands of children, isn't that something that religious leaders should speak out about? Should WANT to speak out about? I would think that it would be more worthy of the Catholic hierarchs attention than say their investment portfolios or protecting their pedophile brother priests or misguidedly intruding into presidential politics or going on witch hunts among American religious women.I wonder if you, Ken, would be so smug if it was your b _ _ t in prison, or your children or grandchildren, for as you seem to argue, for violating outrageously unjust drug prohibitions?Sorry, if my ranting about my moral indignation offends you ... NOT!!!!!As my sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, would say: "The twin daughters of Hope are Anger and Courage."

Jim In this land we have a representative form of government where for the most part, the majority makes the rules - and that is a good thing. When the majority of voters decide to legalize marijuana, it will be legal. After so many years of nonsense regarding this, thankfully (in my opinion) the tide is beginning to turn toward MJ legalization.You correctly point out what I alluded to; that institutions like the CYA will strongly resist legalizing marijuana, mainly for narrow reasons associated with their jobs and pensions. Many, many young folks are routinely fed into systems like the CYA, and in the process of trying to wind their way through that bureaucracy towards the door, they keep guards and social workers of all kinds employed for years. I cant be as dramatic about this as you, but I do not think we disagree. Like I said, this will be interesting; well see.

Ken: Marijuana legalization is not going far enough. End the prison industrial complex! END THE WHOLE DRUG WAR NOW!

[...] Historic Night for Marijuana Legalization, too! – Commonweal Connecticut and Massachusetts both passed medical marijuana laws this year, joining 16 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing pot use for various health conditions, while the CO and WA versions are explicitly for recreational … http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/ — Thu, 15 Nov 2012 12:44:02 -0800 [...]

[...] Historic Night for Marijuana Legalization, too! – Commonweal Connecticut and Massachusetts both passed medical marijuana laws this year, joining 16 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing pot use for various health conditions, while the CO and WA versions are explicitly for recreational … http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/ — Thu, 15 Nov 2012 12:44:02 -0800 [...]

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About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).