Have you ever smoked marijuana? Did you inhale?

There was a time when I would have gotten giggly just asking you that. But time and experience have jaded and faded my naive innocence to the point where I can unflinchingly ask how much weed you've been toking and where you get your supply. It's a weedy, weedy world. Back in college, however, when I was a fresh-off-the-boat missionary kid, this was all very new to me: the idea that I could actually know folks who would openly admit to (gasp) using illegal drugs. Legal and culturally condoned drugs like sugar, or caffeine, or shopping or dopamine or video games - that I could understand, but POT? This was something infinitely more mystical and fascinating.

One day, for the purpose of education, I started on my dorm white-board a list of marijuana-related words: "splif, doobie, joint, mary jane, ganja, hash, grass, roach, stoned, wasted, trashed, high, et cetera, et cetera." From time to time, dorm-mates or passers-by would add to the list until, about a week later, we had covered every inch of that board in a mish-mash of maui-wowie. Then one morning... GONE: wiped clean by my brother's bug-eyed roommate who insisted, loudly, that we were encouraging evil and had to be stopped.

This was the same guy who came into the dorm lounge furious one day because he had overheard the chapel band practicing. "You can't practice worship!" he ranted. "It's supposed to be spontaneous and from the heart! This is immoral and has to be stopped... I'm gonna file a complaint!"

Now, I can sort of see the point old bug-eyes was trying to make. I, too, dislike the tin-can, entertainment-aspect of most contemporary, protestant church music. I won't re-hash here why I have this opinion, but I will say that this protruding-peeper dormmate with his little one-man protests annoyed me more than crappy music ever could have, because he was trying to legislate morality and that, mes amigos, is a real problem.

I've been working through an online Harvard University course called "Justice", which among other things explores the foundations of the American judicial system. Although this course has refreshed my memory and taught me some new things, I still don't have more than a rudimentary understanding of how the law works. Still, as a justice-minded individual (it's one of the most pervasive themes of my faith tradition), it is something I have thought and argued about a fair  bit. It just keeps popping up.

When I start writing about marijuana, for example, I am reminded of a conversation I had back in my college days with my friend Aren Roukema about the process of de-criminalization that was going on in our province (British Columbia) at the time. Neither of us smoked the stuff, so it was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else, but I was trying to convince Aren that this de-criminalization would lead to madness and mayhem and the deaths of countless helpless children. I had started to feed him the line that marijuana was just BAD and ought to be illegal when he stopped me, compellingly, with this point: you cannot legislate morality.

And I repeat: you cannot legislate morality.

The purpose of law is not to make good citizens. The purpose of law is to take the principle that "your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins" and enforce it. This is called the harm principle and was developed by people like John Stuart Mill and John Locke. It assumes that at times people will be bad citizens and will unjustly hurt others, and therefore seeks to protect the afflicted. It takes the extra step, however, of asserting that the government has no right to do anything beyond that. This is a good thing, I think, because it keeps the psychos in power from going out on a whim and making illegal any old behaviors that they happen not to like.

I knew this at the time of my argument with Aren, but I still found the idea of a split between law and morality odd. I had always thought of the law as this big THING - a massive, blockish machine that, while incomprehensible and sometimes manipulated unjustly by evil forces, was still a generally reliable indicator of what I should and should not do. I quickly realized, however, that it made sense that the relationship between law and morality - beyond that first moral principle of protecting innocent faces from unjust fists - was mostly incidental. Hmmm, I thought... and then I thought some more.

Morality is a strange force, with fairly universal moral principles being applied in a dizzyingly broad variety of ways by different cultures. It is possible, I believe, to attempt with a certain degree of success to judge the objective moral value of an action. But even if you were supremely wise and able to always distinguish the difference between what is universally true and what is merely cultural, the fact remains that it is a question, primarily, of the heart (or character, or whatever). Heart-education is not, I believe the province of the government, but rather of the family and community. Family and community may have degraded in our culture to the point where it would seem easier to hand this task over to the government (as many try to do) but this is one case where easier is definitely not better.

While you might, I think, make a fairly convincing argument that smoking a lot of pot hurts people (it certainly doesn't help the GPAs of those of my students who regularly light up), in order to argue for continued legislation against it you would have to prove conclusively that it hurts people other than those who smoke it. And let me remind you that it is not enough to show that it hurts other people in a broader, "culture is diminished by pot-smokers' increased stupidity" sense, or even to say that driving under the influence of pot is dangerous. Television has been proven to kill brain cells, and idiots are always getting drunk and hopping behind the wheels of cars - but we certainly don't take that to mean we should outlaw watching "The Office" with a good glass of wine.

Neither do we make it illegal to be a glutton, a gossip, a lust-monkey, a meany-pants, or a smoker of cigarettes (although the harm principle has been more widely applied, of late, to restrict the marketing and use of cigarettes). Furthermore, although the country where I happen to live is (I've been told) a nation founded on Christian principles you may, in fact, quite legally break all but the sixth, eighth, and ninth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17), which are, theoretically, the foundation of the entire Judeo-Christian ethical system.

This is not to say that you should do any of those legal but arguably immoral things. In fact, let me suggest that I think it is much better if you don't. It has been my experience that all these things will lead to a diminishment of life, robbing you of joy and love and your community of the benefit of what you could be as your most healthy, creative self. In fact, I will go even further and say that although you are welcome to work to change a law, unless you have a compelling moral reason to break them you should always obey all the laws of your country to the best of your ability - no matter how stupid or ill-conceived they may be. As Mahatma Gandhi said, this will give you the moral right to disobey laws that are immoral, because you will have proven that you are not merely breaking laws out of selfish disrespect for the community in which you have chosen to live.

I want to get all worked up about this - to yell and shake my fist and erase the whiteboard of your mind so that I can cover it with more uplifting things - but then I remember: "let him who has never exceeded the posted legal speed limit cast the first stone," and I think again, briefly, of shutting up.


  1. well written mb

  2. Have you read Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael"? You should. NOW. Thought provoking. Get it on Ebay.

  3. I started reading it last summer at JJ's house, Aunt Aureol. Thanks. As Dave Matthews would say, "I'm a monkey for your love" ;)


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