The Moral Incoherence of Drug Prohibition


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The Moral Incoherence of Drug Prohibition


The state of Rhode Island is considering the legalization of recreational marijuana, and some opponents of legalization have jumped in to demand the status quo continues. 

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday for example, that Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin has come out forcefully against the legalization of marijuana claiming that marijuana turns people into “zombie-like individuals.” 

Now, I doubt that Bp. Tobin is especially influential in Rhode Island politics, or that his essay on the matter will make much difference. 

However, Tobin’s implied support for breaking up families and jailing fathers, wives, mothers, and husbands — for the “crime” of using a plant that Tobin dislikes — is illustrative. Tobin’s positions provide us with a helpful and high-profile example of the flaws in attempts to make moral arguments claiming that non-violent activities should be regulated and punished by states. 

What Prohibition Means 

A call for the continued criminalization of marijuana use and sales necessary implies support for the jailing and punishment of individuals who deal in the production, use, or distribution of this particular plant. 

This also brings with it tacit approval and support of everything that comes with government prohibition. With every law comes the need to enforce that law. Support for legal prohibition means either explicit or implied support for the following:

  • The use of taxpayer funds to support courts for the legal prosecution of drug users including the necessary staff and real estate. These resources are necessarily diverted from being used to prosecute and try perpetrators of violent crime including murderers, rapists, thieves, and other violators of property rights. 
  • The use of taxpayer funds to support a police force to apprehend violators, including surveillance equipment, paid informants, police staff, automobiles, and jails. This necessarily draws resources away from police activities designed to capture rapists, murderers, thieves, and other violent criminals. 
  • The use of taxpayer funds to build, maintain, and staff a system of jails and prisons for the warehousing of drug-use convicts which also necessitates resources to be provided for food, health care, and other amenities.
  • The destruction of marriages and families which results from the incarceration or drug users. 
  • An increase in the number of single-parent families (due to one parent being incarcerated), and the resulting increase of poverty. 

For whatever reason, those who support the continued prohibition on marijuana have concluded that the use of marijuana is so damaging to society that it justifies the violent arrest and jailing of perpetrators, all at immense expense to the taxpayers. The prohibitionist position also considers it acceptable that prohibition will lead to the creation of black markets and the resulting empowerment of organized crime and other violent criminals who thrive under these conditions

These side effects of prohibition are not even in dispute. In response, the prohibitionists simply call for more policing, more public expense, and more punishment of individuals do deal with the violent side effects that result from prohibition. 

It could be that Tobin is actually opposed to harsh penalties for drug use, and that he favors decriminalization. If that is the case, he needs to clarify the difference between this position and his call to “say no to the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island.”

Why Not Alcohol? 

Since drug prohibition is such a costly and socially disruptive endeavor, one must assume that the costs of drug use must be even higher. If they weren’t, then it hardly seems apparent how any humane person could support such an endeavor. 

So what are the costs of drug usage? 

Aside from Tobin’s second-hand and highly scientific observation that drug users are like “zombies,” he also notes that drug use is responsible for “impaired and dangerous driving,” and “health problems” including “concerns during pregnancy.” Also dangerous, Tobin notes, is the fact that marijuana can offer “an escape” to young people, who, in addition to destructive activities like wearing “hoodies” may be transported by drugs further into “the land of oblivion.” 

Reading about Tobin’s concern with all of these issues, I naturally wanted to learn more about Tobin’s call for the prohibition of alcohol since alchohol contributes far more to these social ills every year, than marijuana does. 

The health problems related to alcohol, of course have been documented for many years, and in 2013 alone, more than 10,000 Americans died from injuries sustained in alcohol-related auto accidents. Alcohol is also closely linked to domestic abuse and a myriad of social ills. 

So, does Tobin support prohibition on alcohol as well? It appears he does not. 

As with everyone who calls for the abolition of social ills via drug prohibition, yet turns a blind eye to alcohol abuse, Tobin must first explain why he accepts social ills that result from alcohol consumption while he calls for legal action against drug users. Without a clear explanation of the distinction here, the rest of Tobin’s claims display a damaging inconsistency.  Indeed, his views even rise to the level of hypocrisy if Tobin or those close to him use alcohol for recreational purposes. 

Moreover, if Tobin is so concerned about the effects of drug use in Colorado, his time might be better spent focuses on the fact that binge drinking is more prevalent in Rhode Island than it is Colorado. And if health is such a great concern of his, he might perhaps better spend his time combating obesity, which is far more damaging to public health overall than is marijuana use. Notably, the obesity rate is substantially higher in Rhode Island than it is in Colorado. 

In his essay, Tobin appears to recognize the need to differentiate between alcohol and drugs in order to sound coherent. However, the essay all suggests that Tobin clearly knows he can’t convincingly make this argument.  This is why Tobin falls back on an appeal to authority instead. 

To sidestep the argument, Tobin appeals to the Catholic Catechism which states “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life…their use … is a grave offense.” 

That’s fair enough, but what is a drug? No definition is given, and no clarifying footnotes are provided in the catechism. Moreover, since virtually all educated people accept that alcohol is a drug with intoxicating effects — which can inflict grave damage on health and life — it would seem that it should be included here. In quoting the Catechism, Tobin averrs: “there is no exception for marijuana.” But, as Tobin conveniently fails to mention: there is no exception for alcohol either. 

Tobin might protest and say “well, of course we don’t mean alcohol too,” then the question remains: “why not”? We’ve already demonstrated that the effects of alcohol use can be similar to the effects of other types of drug use. So what standard is to be employed to make a distinction between drugs that must be harshly punished by the state, and drugs that are to be used openly at church functions? 

Why Not Punish Other Immoral Activities Similarly? 

As a final note, we must ask Bp. Tobin if all activities with harmful social effects should be outlawed? Should adultery be outlawed? If not, why not? Certainly, the social effects of divorce and broken homes are not something to be ignored. If the proper use of public policy is to punish and imprison people for committing a “grave offense” then surely adultery must be punished similarly to marijuana use. Moreover, based on Tobin’s arguments, we might also conclude that prostitution is punished too lightly. Given the negative social and health effects of prostitution, it is important that we punish prostitution as we do drug use, with harsh prison terms doled out to prostitutes who engage in the “distribution” of this harmful activity. The grave nature of their offenses surely demand it. 

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