To Smoke Pot or Not?

[ By on December 14, 2016 ]

The effects of marijuana and the question of its legalization have been hot button issues for some time now. Although marijuana has not been legalized under federal law in the U.S., marijuana is now legal for medical use in 28 states and D.C. and for recreational use for adults in 8 states and D.C. Recently, in the past election, voters in Massachusetts passed legislation to legalize marijuana that went into effect in November. This piqued my interest and resurfaced the issue of marijuana legalization.
The arguments made on both sides of the issue raise interesting questions about science and scientific uncertainty. There has been promising scientific research about the medical benefits of marijuana for treatment of cancer and pain, but there are still health risks from the drug itself and the act of smoking it. Additionally, marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug means that relatively little testing and scientific research has been conducted on it. Even though marijuana is generally recognized as non-addictive and there have been zero recorded deaths from marijuana use, many opponents of marijuana legalization argue that it is a “gateway drug,” leading users to seek out “harder,” more dangerous and addictive drugs. Does this argument hold weight scientifically? Does marijuana warrant a Schedule I classification based on its scientific properties?
It is equally as interesting to consider this issue from an ethical standpoint. Is it ethical to prohibit people from using mind-altering substances? How do the consequences of marijuana use and its possible harms factor into this ethical question? Using Kant’s ethics, I would think that legalizing marijuana would be ethical, as the world would not “fall apart” if people were allowed to use any drug (as we see today). However, there are of course important differences between say, Advil and Methamphetamines, so maybe a framework like Utilitarianism or Ross’ ethics would be better suited to this issue. Utilitarianism could consider the benefits to the user, the revenue to the state government, and the protection of personal liberty against the possible negative consequences of marijuana use. This again would tie back into science and what we know about the drug itself. It would also be useful to consider why marijuana became federally illegal in the first place, as I have heard that it has roots in racism and efforts to incarcerate freed slaves after slavery was abolished. The disproportionate effect of drug laws on minority populations in the U.S. also raises ethical questions about policy regarding the legality of marijuana.
This issue would be ripe for bioethical exploration and I would be interested in exploring both its scientific and ethical complexities.

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