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?
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).