COMMENTARY | In my previous opinion piece, Justin Bieber Smoking Weed: Supporting Legal Marijuana Should Not Sway Opinion, I touched on the belief that supporting the legalization of marijuana necessarily entails that proponents should break the law by consuming marijuana as a form of civil disobedience. I called this idea false without explaining why and assumed readers would get my meaning.
Some angry commentators took this to mean that I support the marijuana laws as currently written and one posted this response:
“Consuming marijuana is not immoral in of itself, but breaking the law certainly is. “
This statement couldn’t be more wrong. Civil disobedience has been very effective in getting racist laws (like the drug war) overturned in the past.
“Everyone has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King.
“The best plan of action would be to petition the government for change instead of just grumbling and breaking the law in protest.”
The federal government shows no sign of allowing for the medical use of marijuana, even though 80% of the population wants to legalize medical marijuana. Numerous bills for marijuana law reform have been introduced into Congress, only to never see a hearing. The feds don’t even want to discuss industrial hemp.
Alcohol prohibition was not repealed by ‘petitioning for change’; it was repealed because millions of Americans disobeyed the law.
Patrick Frye has a grade-school understanding of U.S. history.
Because of the complexity of the topic I felt it best to respond at length. When I write I’m making the distinction between the law in of itself and the effects of the law. At best I feel that current marijuana laws could be called arbitrary. The label of unjust might only apply if the continuing justifications for maintaining the status quo were proven to be untrue or, worse, outright lies as is the case with some of the older justifications for making cannabis illegal in the first place.
I believe that a disagreement over where the line between just and unjust laws lies is no reason for insults. The response seemed to assume that I support the current marijuana laws. If anything, I believe that marijuana should probably be a controlled substance that is regulated like tobacco and alcohol, although I’d prefer it if governments keep their hands off in general. As in, no taxing it either, because Congress has a spending problem as it is and doesn’t need to waste more money. If legal cannabis is to be taxed, all revenues should go to the states and not the Federal government.
Despite my opinion being in favor of the legalized regulation of marijuana, I still find that comparing the civil rights movement to efforts to legalize marijuana to be a false conflation of two distinct issues. This concept seems to serve only as grounds for justifying breaking the law. The missing first part of that Martin Luther King Jr. quote reads, “In any civilized society, it is every citizen’s responsibility to obey just laws.” Consuming marijuana is not a necessity nor is it a right. If evidence is anything to go by, consuming marijuana is primarily an amoral act that is mostly intended for entertainment or recreational purposes. The pros and cons of consuming marijuana can be debated — with some medical studies pointing to health issues with smoking but not necessarily baking — but in any case when it comes to marijuana civil disobedience is not a necessity borne out of basic rights being trample upon by the government.
Perhaps not the perfect comparison, but a specific speed limit is also an amoral, and perhaps arbitrary, law. It could be argued that it is “just” that a majority of representatives agreed to this law, although the resulting law in of itself could be considered amoral. Thus, there is no excuse for breaking the speeding limit laws. Likewise for marijuana.
Medicinal implementations for cannabis are arguably the only instance where matters of just/unjust laws become an issue, since how is it just to deny help for someone truly suffering? Although, that statement does ignore the comparison of the effectiveness of marijuana against other alternatives, and whether or not it is justified to focus on providing medicinal marijuana when better options might be available. Opinions are mixed, but also seem to be based upon smoking versus other methods of consumption. Then there is the debate over Marinol versus natural cannabis, but medical effectiveness debates are really outside the focus of this current article.
The issue of racism is not caused by the law itself but in the enforcement of the law, but that distinction should not quell the cries for ending the injustice. To use the speed limit comparison again, I’ve read that police officers tend to pull over black people more than other demographic groups, but that does not make the speed limit law itself unjust.
The Los Angeles Times explains how racism likely plays a part in enforcement of the law:
“Blacks make up less than 7% of the state population but 22% of people arrested for all marijuana offenses and 33% of all marijuana felony arrests. More African Americans are arrested in California for marijuana felonies than are whites, even though whites are six times more represented in the state population. The overrepresentation of African Americans is not explained by use rates. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the percentage of African Americans and whites who use marijuana over any 30-day period are similar. However, for the 18-25 age group — which constitutes a substantial proportion of marijuana arrests — African Americans regularly use marijuana at rates lower than whites (16.5% and 18.4%, respectively), indicating that their overrepresentation may be even more profound.”
Finally, prohibition laws were repealed not because of the nature of the laws, or that they were unjust laws, but due to increased lawlessness, which propped up the mob, and due to the huge loss in federal tax revenues combined with the increased cost of enforcing prohibition. Similar reasons should give Congress impetus to legalize marijuana as well. But breaking the law is what is causing problems, not following the law. To summarize, in the case of marijuana consumed for recreational purposes there seems to be ample justification to petition the government for change to the law, but not the moral obligation to disobey an unjust law.
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?”
— Henry David Thoreau
“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”
— Source Unknown, Although Widely Attributed To Thomas Jefferson