It is safe to say that at some point in the not-too-distant future, America will confront the question of whether or not to legalize the use and cultivation of marijuana. A recent poll shows that support for legalization has reached its highest level since the question was first asked thirty years ago, with 34 percent supporting a liberalization of policy. Among political elites there is a growing consensus that the harsh penalties imposed on those who grow, use, and sell marijuana are disproportionate to its harmful effects. Even among conservatives, opinion seems to be shifting. Whether the change should be welcomed is another matter.
In a recent essay for National Review, Richard Lowry raises the question of whether marijuana is truly harmful—and he concludes that it isn’t, or at least that it is significantly less so than any number of other drugs that are currently legal. Marijuana, he argues, “should be categorized somewhere between alcohol and tobacco on the one hand, and caffeine on the other.” As evidence, he first points out that whereas “alcohol and tobacco kill hundreds of thousands of people a year,” there is “no such thing as a lethal overdose of marijuana.”
While this is certainly true, it is also the case that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “lethal overdose” of tobacco. To the extent that tobacco causes deaths, it does so through the cumulative effects of smoking tobacco-filled cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Unless Lowry intends to deny that most marijuana users get high through smoking it and that they usually do so without the filters commonly attached to cigarettes, one must assume that marijuana is at least as lethal as tobacco. As for alcohol, while it, unlike marijuana, can cause death when taken in extremely large doses, the same could also be said for such legal substances as aspirin. That it is possible for a drug to be taken in lethal quantities is, then, insufficient to determine whether it is harmful enough to be outlawed.
Much more potent is Lowry’s argument against the conventional wisdom that pot is a “gateway drug” to such “harder” substances as LSD, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Reversing accepted assumptions, Lowry denies both that kids who use marijuana go on to experiment with stronger drugs and that those who do so are led to this behavior by the marijuana itself. As he points out, just “because a cocaine addict used marijuana first doesn’t mean he is on cocaine because he smoked marijuana.” To argue in this way is, he claims, to confuse “temporality with causality.” It is more likely that children who experiment with drugs of all kinds do so because of a preexisting behavioral problem. It’s thus “the kid, not the substance, who is the problem.”
Like the NRA’s effective campaign to persuade the country that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” Lowry’s argument contains much truth. Of course a troubled child is more likely to try drugs than one with a firm sense of right and wrong. But that’s far from being the end of the story. Just as a would-be murderer can usually do far more harm with a gun than he could with a less potent weapon, so a child in danger of losing his way can do more damage to himself when drugs are widely available for his use, as they surely would be if they were legalized.
And then there is the question of education. The behavioral problems that Lowry points to as the true cause of drug abuse do not arise in a vacuum. They come about largely from a failure of moral education—by schools, but much more so by parents. As it is, the law provides a small but significant amount of support for parents in their efforts to steer their kids away from drugs. Libertarians may argue that legalization would not undermine those efforts—that it would merely leave it up to individuals to decide for themselves—but as opponents of the unlimited abortion license are well aware, legal neutrality is often far from neutral. When we outlaw some actions (like murder) and permit others (like abortion) we make a crucially important distinction. We teach that the former are unambiguously wrong and that the latter are not. To legalize marijuana is thus to weaken the position of parents who wish to steel their children against the temptation of drug-taking.
But Lowry nevertheless has a point. If it is true that few users of marijuana become users of other drugs, then the rationale for keeping pot illegal has indeed been undermined. Add to this the scientifically established fact that, unlike alcohol, nicotine, and cocaine, marijuana is not physically addictive, and we cannot help but wonder if we should conclude, with Lowry, that marijuana is relatively harmless, and thus that punishing people for using it is “outrageously disproportionate.”
In two recent columns for the New Republic, Andrew Sullivan goes beyond Lowry’s position to declare flatly that “the illegal thing in pot is not THC [its active ingredient]; it’s pleasure.” And this, he claims, is absurd. In a country that increasingly medicates itself with pharmaceuticals, which, like pot, induce pleasure by manipulating chemicals already present in the human body, criminalizing the use and cultivation of marijuana appears to be completely arbitrary. In fact, according to Sullivan, it is only a “residual cultural puritanism” that stands in the way of allowing Americans to pursue “enjoyment” however they wish. “It is bizarre,” he writes, “that, in a country founded in part on the pursuit of happiness, we should now be expending so many resources on incarcerating and terrorizing so many people simply because they are doing what their Constitution promised.” Sure, he admits, “pleasure isn’t the same thing as happiness.” But “the responsible, adult enjoyment of . . . pleasure . . . is surely part of it.”
The argument is a powerful one. If, in the end, the dispute about legalizing marijuana can be reduced to a conflict between those who support pleasure and those who oppose it, then the prohibitionists have already lost the argument. The Puritans simply won’t be winning any elections in twenty-first century America. Nevertheless, we have reason to think that a case against legalization can be based on a less exacting distinction. That is, we can insist on distinguishing among kinds of pleasure, something that, common sense notwithstanding, Lowry and Sullivan each steadfastly refuse to do.
While most people believe that pleasure is a good thing, they also categorize and rank its different types. Some pleasures are subtle, others are intense. Some are best experienced alone, others can be enjoyed only in community. Some are base, others noble. Some are purely physical, while others are inextricably bound up with our higher powers. And then there are those most fulfilling pleasures—the ones that follow from the completion of the highest human endeavors. The late Allan Bloom noted the occasions that tend to elicit such feelings: “victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion, and the discovery of truth.”
The pleasure of smoking marijuana differs from the kind of pleasure that accompanies smoking a fine cigar or sipping a well-brewed cup of coffee, and more pertinently, it also differs from the pleasure of mild drunkenness. Whereas alcohol primarily diminishes one’s inhibitions and clarity of thought, marijuana inspires a euphoria that resembles nothing so much as the pleasure that normally arises only in response to the accomplishment of the noblest human deeds. Marijuana, like the designer drug Ecstasy, whose legalization Sullivan also, revealingly, supports, provides its users with a means to enjoy the rewards of excellence without possessing it themselves. Bloom again: “Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits.”
A country that consumes ever-greater doses of mood-altering prescription drugs might not deem this to be a significant problem, but it should. The danger is not merely that seeking happiness through pharmacology cuts us off from the world as it truly is. It is also that the very attempt to reach happiness in such a way must ultimately fail. While Sullivan is right to remark on the distinction between pleasure and happiness, he neglects to follow up on his insight—to think through what it is that separates them. If he had done so, he would have noted that, whereas pleasure involves enjoying something good, happiness arises only when we judge ourselves worthy of enjoying it.
This is why such actions as a just military victory can produce happiness, while inhaling marijuana smoke, however pleasurable, can lead only to an ersatz satisfaction—because it involves nothing praiseworthy. Thus it is that, after its effects have worn off, marijuana leaves its users with little more than a feeling of emptiness and a craving for another high to fill it. Hence also the unproductive stupor into which “potheads” frequently fall.
Lowry and Sullivan may be right to claim that marijuana does not lead to physical harm. But it does produce a pathology of the soul. And given the many pathogens that already pollute our culture—as well as our society’s salutary prejudice against marijuana—that is reason enough to resist the efforts of some to remove the legal obstacles to getting high.