USA Today reported on March 11, 2014, that Colorado predicts $111 million in new revenues from the legal sale of marijuana in 2014. Colorado law dedicates the first $40 million to public education, leaving $71 million for the general revenue fund. Marijuana proponents interviewed by USA Today claimed these "dope for dough" revenues vindicate Colorado's wisdom in legalizing marijuana.
The Huffington Post ran three articles the following day supporting national legalization of marijuana. The first article cited a Cato Institute study claiming legalization would generate revenues of $8.7 billion per year. The second article claimed that California alone would generate $1.4 billion per year. The third article reported that 300 economists, including three Nobel laureates, endorse a Harvard study claiming legalization would save the federal government $13.7 billion per year.
Together, these articles claim legalization would improve America's bottom line by $22.4 billion per year. Assume this number is correct, even though it equals $71,474 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Do these revenues justify legalizing marijuana? I address this issue first as a lawyer, second as a philosopher, and third as a Christian.
Legal and Philosophical Perspectives
From a legal perspective, the history of the Western legal tradition shows that legal systems must meet three basic requirements. First, laws must be autonomous and wield supremacy over political rulers. Second, laws must respect basic human rights and liberties. Third, and most relevant to this discussion, the laws must treat their subjects as ends in themselves, not as means to other ends.
As Harvard law professor Harold Berman demonstrates in his classic Law and Revolution, legal systems that violate these requirements inevitably destroy their own societies. The American Revolution illustrates this principle. The 1689 English Bill of Rights guaranteed the American colonists basic human rights and liberties. England's political rulers violated the autonomy of English law and denied the colonists' rights and liberties. England's political rulers did so in order to treat the colonists, not as ends in themselves, but as the means to the political rulers' end of increasing England's tax revenues.
Recent medical research, described below, confirms our common sense that marijuana use creates profoundly negative physical, mental, and psychological problems. States that enable these afflictions to prey on their citizens do not regard their citizens as ends in themselves.
From a philosophical perspective, Western moral philosophy offers three major approaches to moral problems. The first approach, Aristotle's "virtue ethics," emphasizes character development through virtuous habits. Aristotle argues that the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, without regard to reason or virtue, leads to a slavish and bestial life. Medical research proves that marijuana is addictive, and chronic use permanently damages our faculties for memory, learning, and reasoning. Marijuana thus creates the slavish and bestial life that virtue ethics seeks to prevent.
Legalization also ignores Aristotle's argument that law should function as a moral teacher, particularly regarding the pursuit of pleasure by the young. Aristotle argues that it "is necessary that the pursuits of the young should be regulated by law such that they will be habituated to take pleasure in what is good." Legalization destroys this important role of law.
Western philosophy's second approach to moral problems is the "duty" ethics of Immanuel Kant. Shed of its jargon, Kant argues that all our actions should comply with three duties. First, we should only act in ways that we are willing for everyone else to act. Second, we should treat all people, including ourselves, as ends in themselves. We must never reduce people to a means for some other end. Third, we should always act to bring about a "Kingdom of Ends," a world where everyone can fulfill the first two duties.
Legalizing marijuana to increase revenues fails all three of Kant's duties. Regarding Kant's first duty, if one harmful practice is adopted to increase revenues, then every harmful practice must be adopted to increase revenues. Regarding Kant's second duty, legalization to increase revenues reduces users to a means for increasing revenues. Regarding Kant's third duty, a world that legalizes every harmful practice to increase revenues potentially reduces every person to a means for increasing revenues. No "Kingdom of Ends" can exist in such a world.
Western philosophy's third approach to moral problems is the "utilitarianism" of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argues that two masters, pleasure and pain, rule all men. Pleasure for Bentham includes the "utility" or benefit gained by an act. The moral path in any circumstance is the path that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for the greatest number of people.
Bentham's utilitarianism is easily the most criticized of the three major approaches. One important criticism is that utilitarianism ignores the morality of the act itself. Utilitarianism only evaluates the consequences of the act. Bentham argues, for example, that prosecutors should routinely torture criminal suspects to make the legal system more efficient. Bentham's utilitarianism also condones slavery and executing the innocent. Although torture, slavery, and executing the innocent may confer benefits to some, they repel our moral intuitions.
Importantly, the "dope for dough" arguments advanced in USA Today and the Huffington Post for legalizing marijuana are purely utilitarian arguments. They ignore the morality of legalization and focus solely on the benefit of increased revenues.
Furthermore, the "dope for dough" arguments ignore Bentham's directive to minimize pain for the greatest number of people. "Dope for dough" ignores the pain created by marijuana use, specifically its adverse physical, mental, and spiritual effects. A fair evaluation of marijuana's adverse effects, particularly its adverse spiritual effects, requires a Christian perspective. Four points, in my view, are particularly relevant.
The Christian Perspectives
First, money does not provide the standard for right action. We must remember that the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil (I Timothy 6:9-11).
Second, we must be good stewards of our minds. Scripture commands us to prepare our minds, to discipline our thinking, and to maintain sober minds (I Peter 1:13; I Corinthians 15:34). These commands matter. The carnal mind is hostile towards God and unable to accept God's law (Romans 8:7). The renewing of our minds, however, transforms us (Romans 12: 1-3).
Third, we must be good stewards of our bodies. Scripture teaches that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Scripture commands us to preserve our bodies and to use them to honor God (I Corinthians 6:19-20; I Corinthians 3:16-17).
Fourth, we must protect our free will. We belong to whatever power we choose to obey (Romans 6:16). We enslave ourselves to any power that we permit to dominate us (II Peter 2:19). We must never permit anything to master our will (I Corinthians 6:12-13).
Increased revenues do not justify legalizing marijuana from either a legal, a philosophical, or a Christian perspective. From a legal perspective, legalization to increase revenues reduces people to a means to a financial end. Reductive laws destroy society.
From a philosophical perspective, legalization to increase revenues fails the test of every major system of moral philosophy. From a Christian perspective, legalization to increase revenues violates our duties to protect our minds, our bodies, our free will, and our young people. It proves the scriptural truth that the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.
I began this essay by noting that Colorado anticipates $71 million this year in unrestricted revenue from legalization. Politicians are already jostling for their share of the dough. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, with no sense of irony, recently announced his plan to spend the money to fund two statewide programs. The first is a program to prevent marijuana use by young people. The second is a program to treat substance abuse.
John Oliver Tyler teaches Law and Jurisprudence at Houston Baptist University and has practiced civil litigation since 1978. Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in both Civil Trial Law and Personal Injury Trial Law, John holds a JD from Southern Methodist University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Texas A&M. He can be reached at email@example.com.