Thursday, June 14, 2018

Medical Marijuana: Facts & Freedom Beat Fear

On June 26th, Oklahomans will vote on State Question 788: the Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative. While SQ788 should pass fairly easily, some Christians from both inside and outside the state have mounted an effort to dissuade Oklahomans from voting for legalization. As I address in Legalizing Medical Marijuana is Pro-Life and Pro-Individual Liberty, much of the rhetoric coming from Southern Baptist leaders on this issue is, sadly, based on scare tactics and misinformation.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention offers resources on the topic of marijuana (all opposed to legalization). One of those resources is an article entitled, Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana is Harming America based on the book by William Bennett and Robert White of the same name.

The author, Barrett Duke, hails the book as "a very helpful, practical refutation of the marijuana legalization effort" and claims it "effectively dismantles every serious argument being put forward by the legalization crowd." Duke highlights a few of Bennett's key assertions that have often been repeated by Baptists opposed to both medicinal and recreational marijuana. Marijuana use is  dangerous, contrary to sobriety and self-control, and will make the drug problem worse.The benefits of medical marijuana are a myth and legalizing medicinal use is just a front for full legalization.

Duke touts the book's "helpful guidance for a successful return to a government program to reduce illicit drug use rather than capitulation." (Medicinal use of marijuana would literally no longer be illicit after legalization, just saying). The Baptist position is basically prohibition plus doubling down on the failed war on drugs.

Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason magazine and contributor at, responded to Bennett's book with Bill Bennett's Confused And Confusing Defense Of Pot Prohibition. Far from "dismantling every serious argument being put forward by the legalization crowd," as Duke proclaimed, Sullum found Bennett's book to be "a rambling, repetitive, self-contradicting hodgepodge of scare stories, misleading comparisons, unsupportable generalizations, and decontextualized research results."

Sullum "dismantles" every key argument made by Bennett and White. Those who have come accustomed to taking the usual prohibitionist talking points for granted would do well to consider his rejoinder. Rather than recite his counter-arguments, I want to highlight a couple of key points that are often missed in this debate.

Bennett and White state, "We can add to the menu of dangerous substances available to our citizens, or we can draw a line and admit we are surfeited with the problems that already exist." Sullum's response is, "That is the real crux of Bennett and White’s argument, and it depends on accepting their premise that using force to stop people from hurting themselves is morally justified." Should Christians advocate for the use of force to stop people from hurting themselves, as Sullum puts it? If the answer is "yes," we need to greatly expand the list of actions and substances to prohibt. But does this get to the heart of the matter? Does the Gospel offer another way?

In case you're not going to click over to Sullum's article, I'll leave you with an extended quote that is truly worth pondering within the context of legalizing medical marijuana:

Bennett and White do not begin to grapple with the question of how it can be just to treat people as criminals when their actions violate no one's rights. They simply take it as a given that “the government not only has a right, but a duty to keep the public safe from harm, including dangerous substances.” They maintain that an action is “worthy of being illegal” if it is “something that hurts individuals or society.” Since Bennett has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, we can assume he understands the implications of his words, which make no distinction between self-regarding behavior and actions that harm others, or between the sort of injury that violates people’s rights and the sort that does not. It would be hard to come up with a broader license for government intervention, and it is impossible to reconcile Bennett and White’s free-ranging paternalism with their avowed support for “less government intrusion into the lives of all Americans.”

Here is how Bennett and White sum up the moral objection to marijuana prohibition:
What is the ultimate right being argued for?...At the end of the day the right is, simply put, a right to get and be stoned. This, it seems to us, is a rather ridiculous right upon which to charge a hill.
 This is like saying that freedom of speech is the right to tweet about the latest episode of American Idol, or that freedom of religion is the right to believe silly things and engage in pointless rituals. It is true as far as it goes, but it overlooks the broader principle. Drug prohibition dictates to people what substances they may ingest and what states of consciousness they may seek, thereby running roughshod over the principle that every man is sovereign over his own body and mind.

Even if marijuana is not as bad as they portray it, Bennett and White ask, “Do we need it?” They think cannabis consumers need to justify their freedom, when it is prohibitionists who need to justify forcibly imposing their pharmacological preferences on others. After so many years of taking that power for granted, it’s hardly surprising they are not up to the task. 

Conservatives and libertarians differ greatly when it comes to these points: is it permissible and/or wise to use force to stop self-regarding behavior as well as actions that harm others? Should force be used to prohibit or respond to injuries that do not violate another person's rights in addition to those that do violate another's rights? Is each individual sovereign over their own body and mind? Do people have a right to impose their "pharmacological preferences" on others? If so, on what grounds?

Along with Bennett and White, Christians have taken this power for granted for a long time. Many Christians, including Baptists, are beginning to question the validity of prohibition, especially when it comes to medical marijuana. May this discussion continue because the principles involved apply to much more than drug legalization.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is a prison pastor, holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from Dallas Theological Seminary, and is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Jeff is a very blessed husband and daddy, loves serving his local church, and enjoys all things Star Wars. He regularly writes for the Libertarian Christian Institute. You can also find him @jeffwrightjr.  

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