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Legalization of Marijuana:

Analyzing a Contemporary Question Through Classical Perspectives


By Keenan Weatherford GOVT 1615 April 21, 2009

Murmurs of legalizing marijuana have been circulating since the social revolution era of the 1960s, but with the international financial crisis as well as a failed War on Drugs, the call for marijuana legislation has grown louder in certain political circles. There are myriad reasons presented by both sides of the debate, many of which stem from basic political theories from the likes of Plato and John Locke. Both philosophers would have distinct opinions about marijuana; Plato would advocate to strictly prohibit its use among the upper two tiers of society (philosopher-kings and auxiliaries) and to turn the occasional blind eye to pot use in the lower class (producers). Locke would have some reservations about marijuana use, but would ultimately prefer a hands-off approach and lobby for legalization. Aside from the practical problems Plato would identify, legalizing marijuana use would first and foremost violate Plato's notion of morality. For Plato, a moral human is a human whose three "sections" self-discipline, courage and wisdom are all in order. Where each of the constituent parts of an individual does its own job, the individual will be moral and do his own job (pg 153). The altered state of mind brought on by marijuana use is likely a result of an unbalanced psyche where the three sections are not operating in sync. One symptom is extreme feelings of hunger and thirst, an indication that cannabis use brings out the role of the selfdiscipline/appetite aspect of the psyche more than usual. Legalization of marijuana would also be a traditionally sophist piece of legislation, something which Plato was very opposed to. One of his major criticisms of Greek democracy was that it opened the door to sophists, who encourage the desires of the masses rather than showing them the truth. Marijuana use would throw the three components of human psyche out of order and create an immoral being who is then incapable of performing his or her job in society. One of the points Plato stressed in The Republic was the need to develop and maintain pure,

incorrigible philosopher-kings to rule society. These philosopher-kings needed to be able to see the truth of all things and make the best decisions for society, and marijuana would likely hinder execution of both of these duties. Some common symptoms prescribed to frequent marijuana use are short-term memory loss, loss of motivation and impaired thinking all symptoms that should be avoided by a philosopher-king. Plato also warned against rewarding philosopher-kings with physical goods for fear that they would grow corrupt and stop acting in the best interest of society. If philosopher-kings smoked marijuana, they might lose sight of the ultimate goal: prosperity of the society they rule over. Similarly, the second-class guardians of society should also avoid marijuana use, which inhibits response time and physical activity. This way they would best be able to maintain their ability to defend the society from attack having an army of "stoned" soldiers does not seem like a prudent way to protect a city from outside forces. Plato would oppose marijuana use among the lowest class on the grounds that it produces immoral individuals, but he would recognize that use among the lower class is not as detrimental to society as use among the top two classes. In the producer or "bronze" class, marijuana use would still create an immoral person who is less capable of performing his or her duties, but the duties of a member of the lower class are inherently less crucial to the functioning of society than are the duties of a member of the higher classes. Producers who smoke marijuana are likely to be less efficient at performing their duties, but it may be worth conceding that efficiency to preserve the complacency of the producer class. If the producers want to use marijuana, it might be more beneficial to society to let them use it and sacrifice efficiency rather than risk upsetting the producer class and causing an uprising. The most critical function of a society, according to Plato, is to ensure that everyone performs

the job associated with the class in which they belong. Marijuana use among the lower class could actually be beneficial to this end, as it might quash ambitions that the "bronze" class may have of moving up to the "silver" or "gold" classes. Even with this significant benefit to marijuana use, Plato would not argue for legalization because such an action would send the message that the government essentially supports immorality. Rather than legalizing marijuana use, Plato might be content to let it remain generally unpunished in the lower class, but heavily restricted in the upper two classes. In a way, this actually resembles the system in place in the US today. Marijuana use is illegal, but not heavily enforced. It is decriminalized in many cities and states, meaning that relatively minor pot offenders face only a fine rather than criminal charges. There is a recent initiative in several cities and counties to make marijuana enforcement the absolute lowest priority of local law enforcement. The gesture is largely symbolic in these regions, as law enforcement often looks the other way when presented with pot smokers. The usual strategy of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and various other drug-fighting organs of the government is to get at the root of the drug problem and concentrate efforts on seeking out and arresting marijuana dealers. This is likely the most efficient use of the DEA's resources, but it allows most users to avoid detection and prosecution. While legal consequences do not always result from marijuana use, other forces in society often impose their own will regarding drug use. High-level officials in the public and private sectors are (presumably) drug tested regularly as a result of the prevailing impression that drug use makes such officials less competent in carrying out their duties. The influence that these officials have on their community makes them the modern-day equivalent of Plato's notion of philosopher-kings. Soldiers and members of the armed forces are also drug tested regularly, as

being under the influence of drugs would compromise their ability to do their job and defend their country. One potential cause for Plato to change his stance and support legalization is if the philosopher-kings determine that it will benefit their society. Philosopher-kings are able to see a deeper truth and should utilize that vision to guide their communities to prosperity, according to Plato. Although difficult to imagine, there may be situations where the philosopher-kings use their superior powers of perception to determine that the benefits of legalization outweigh the drawbacks. The current conflict with warring drug cartels in Mexico and violence spilling into the US might be one of these situations. By making marijuana illegal, the US government forces marijuana users to purchase from violent drug gangs based in Mexico. If the government legalized marijuana, the number of immoral users would increase, but the revenue would go to honest marijuana farmers rather than funding wars between illicit drug cartels. The argument can also be made that legalizing marijuana would help offset the growing federal budget deficit. Again, there would be a higher number of immoral marijuana users if it was legalized, but growth and sale of marijuana plants could, if taxed, be a crucial source of revenue that the philosopher-kings might decide is necessary. In this situation, Plato would still be concerned about the immoral nature of marijuana use, but would trust the judgment of the philosopherkings and might be swayed to advocate for legalization. Locke would also have many concerns and hesitations about legalizing marijuana use, but he would ultimately decide that it should be legalized due to his liberal negative notion of freedom. Despite concerns about marijuana's effect on society, Locke's would conclude that his ideal limited government would not authorize the outlaw of marijuana use. One reservation Locke might have about marijuana use is his wariness of passion and bias in humans. While

rational humans can coexist peacefully in a state of nature, that tranquility ends when personal bias or passion comes into play and causes one human to disrespect a natural right, often personal property, of another human. It is unclear if marijuana use creates "passion and bias" but most would agree that it alters the state of mind, and anti-drug campaigns often point out bad decisions made while under the influence of marijuana. It seems logical that the altered state of mind and poor decision-making accounted to marijuana use might increase the number of altercations between people. While Locke is a firm advocate of private property, he also believes that personal wealth should not accumulate beyond the point at which it can't even be used up before it is spoiled: "The exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it." (Pg 257). If Locke viewed marijuana use as an extraneous expense or luxury, he would hesitate to legalize it on the grounds that resources used for marijuana consumption could be better applied elsewhere in society. If a person has enough free time to sit around smoking pot, Locke might argue, then he or she should find something more productive to do that benefits the society as a whole. Probably the biggest challenge to achieving Locke's ideal of limited government comes from the government itself and Locke's democratic notion of political power. One of Locke's essential ideas about government is that the citizens who decide to form a common-wealth have the power to determine laws for themselves ("the common-wealth comes by a power to set down what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it, committed amongst the members of that society") through a majority consensus ("And therefore we see, that in assemblies ... the act of the majority passes for the act of the whole, and of course determines, as having, by the law of nature and reason, the power of the whole")

(Pg 258, 260). This would not clash with the ideal limited government if the members of the common-wealth decided to legalize marijuana use. But if a majority of a society opposed marijuana use and voted to outlaw it, Locke's ideal limited government would be at odds with his ideal of democratic power. On the one hand, a government has no power if the will of the majority is not executed, so it would be subversive to undermine a majority vote to outlaw marijuana use. On the other hand, the government should never, even with the majority's consent, be allowed to infringe on a person's natural rights. Ultimately, it would seem to be a matter of logic: the barest, most pure purpose of government is, Locke would maintain, to preserve its citizens' natural rights. Even if a democratic vote outlawed marijuana use, the issue would be irrelevant in Locke's eyes because the government has no business regulating such issues. The government's authority comes from the peoples' desire to protect their natural rights and private property, and its power comes with the caveat that "the supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property..." (pg 266). This reverence for private property and natural rights is what would ultimately compel Locke to advocate for marijuana legalization. According to Locke, private property is the product of a person's labor. Locke was a follower of the Protestant notion that hard work is rewarded, and he saw private property as that reward. It is a concept that is essential to society, because protection of private property is what compels humans to form a society. "Private property," as Locke states, does not refer solely to the physical possessions of a person. It represents the right to have a life complete with habits, vices and values outside the scope of the public eye. Negative freedom, Locke argues, is the true kind of freedom that a government can offer

to its citizens the freedom to do anything that is not expressly prohibited. Marijuana use, which is the use of one's personal property, is just one of many decisions made in life, and Locke would argue that government has no authority to make those decisions for its citizens. Religion is another example of a decision that Locke believes government should avoid interfering with. Government authority should be called into play only when an act is committed that is injurious to others. It would be difficult even for harsh critics to argue that issues such as religion and marijuana use are injurious to others. Especially in the context of today's largely unsuccessful war on drugs, Locke would strongly oppose government spending on regulating harmless drug use and would recommend that those resources be put to use fighting injustices and crimes that have real victims, a call echoed by many contemporary marijuana legalization advocates. The philosophies of Plato and Locke have both shaped contemporary viewpoints and discussion about legalization of marijuana. Evidence of Platos distaste for the immoral as well as Lockes respect for private property are found in the arguments presented by both sides of the modern debate. Were they alive today, Plato and Locke would have differing opinions about legalization of marijuana, but both could be swayed by a decision arrived at by their ideal decision-makers: philosopher-kings in Platos case and the democratic majority in Lockes case. Plato would argue against legalization because he would see marijuana use as immoral and, except for a few special cases to be recognized by philosopher-kings, detrimental to society. However, Plato would recognize the utility of unofficially allowing some marijuana use in the bottom (producer) class of society. Locke would also have moral concerns about marijuana use, but would ultimately support a government that legalized marijuana use and provided the greatest amount of negative freedom to its citizens.