Andrew Fiala

Proposition 64: Discerning the pros and cons of legalized marijuana

Marijuana products, including pre-rolled cigarettes and buds, are displayed at the medical marijuana dispensary owned by Tim Blake near Laytonville.
Marijuana products, including pre-rolled cigarettes and buds, are displayed at the medical marijuana dispensary owned by Tim Blake near Laytonville. Associated Press file

There are difficult questions to confront in thinking about Proposition 64. If the polls are right, the pot proposition will likely pass. And if it passes, we will need to think carefully about the morality of marijuana.

Libertarians argue that adults should be free to get high. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, has long advocated marijuana reform.

Others oppose intoxication on principle. This view is often based in religion. Mormons, Mennonites and Muslims – as well as Buddhists and Baptists – generally oppose alcohol and other intoxicants. Religious folks tend to think that drug-induced rapture is a false idol leading to immoral behavior.

But some traditions do use drugs to achieve ecstasy and insight. An ancient proverb states “in vino veritas,” in wine there is truth. Uninhibited drunks may speak the truth and some find enlightenment in their cups.

William James, the great American philosopher, explained, “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is, in fact, the great exciter of the Yes function in man. … It makes him, for the moment, one with truth.”

James described the “ontological intuition” disclosed by various drugs. That’s fancy language for the sense of wonder and harmony that some drugs elicit. Marijuana often has been associated with spirituality and higher consciousness – by Rastafarians, Indian mystics, Sufis and hippies.

Puritanical types argue that chemical nirvana is cheap and phony. It is debatable whether any drug can put you in touch with God. But there is no denying that human beings pursue altered states of consciousness.

Sober thought and rational discernment are important goods – often in short supply. But man does not live by sobriety alone. We also need escapes and relaxations.

In our culture, alcohol is the drug of choice. A glass of wine at dinner is part of haute cuisine. Art and music often are enjoyed with wine or a cocktail. And beer goes with sports. Libertarians argue for expanding our choices.

But the freedom to alter consciousness runs up against our responsibility to others. Do we want stoned parents – or drunk parents, for that matter – raising children? Impaired driving is an important concern. Drunken drivers kill about 27 people per day. Marijuana legalization likely will increase traffic fatalities.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws offers a different opinion. NORML suggests that stoned drivers are aware of their impairment and slow down, focusing more on driving. They claim that drunken drivers are more reckless than stoned drivers.

This is an unlikely story. And even if it is true, legal pot will cause traffic snarls as would-be Cheeches and Chongs creep along in the fast lane. There is no denying that stoned drivers will cause accidents.

A Libertarian will reply that despite drunken driving, alcohol remains legal. From this point of view, what is needed is regulation and education, not prohibition. Self-driving cars and better public transportation also would help.

If marijuana becomes legal in California, as is likely, it is still worth asking whether decent and responsible people should partake. We will need social norms to guide appropriate pot behavior – a guidebook of marijuana manners.

Our culture – our economy, our educational system and our democratic process – is based upon the presumption of sobriety and rationality. Intoxicated workers, teachers and voters are dangerous. If weed is legalized, decent people should only use it in moderation and at appropriate times.

We have a system of social norms governing alcohol. The cocktail hour begins only after work. Responsible drinkers drink moderately, imbibing one or two drinks a day – and not every day. They recognize that alcoholism is a risk. And they understand that drunken driving is wrong.

We do not have a similar system of social norms governing pot use. Stoner culture is often excessive and irresponsible. Snoop Dogg is not a role model.

If pot is legalized, we will need moral guidance on basic questions of where, when and how much. Moderate marijuana use has not been addressed in the mainstream. If Propositon 64 passes, we will need someone other than Cheech, Chong or Snoop to give us advice.

This is probably a lot for a stoned voter to keep in mind. And that may be a reason for further skepticism about whether legalizing pot is good for our democracy.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: