Andrew Fiala

Pot controversial as it challenges our values about consciousness, perceived reality

A man smokes a marijuana joint in this file photo. Now legal in California, marijuana still inspires opposition from those who see it as sinister and devotion from those who enjoy its consciousness raising aspects.
A man smokes a marijuana joint in this file photo. Now legal in California, marijuana still inspires opposition from those who see it as sinister and devotion from those who enjoy its consciousness raising aspects. AP

The cannabis controversy continues. Recreational marijuana is now legal in California. Lawmakers in Sacramento want to make it easier to expunge prior pot convictions. But in Washington, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pushing back.

Why is marijuana so controversial? Some people see it as a sinister threat. Sessions put this bluntly in 2016 when he was a senator, saying, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Libertarians find this unpersuasive. On CNN last week, former presidential candidate Ron Paul called the war on drugs “unAmerican.” He linked marijuana emancipation with freedom of thought. He said, “If you look at the study of philosophy and religion, that’s very risky stuff.” Despite the risks, Paul believes we should be able to think for ourselves or alter our consciousness if we want.

Marijuana can be risky. Stoned driving is dangerous. But unlike alcohol, it is difficult to overdose on marijuana. The CDC reports that six Americans die on average of alcohol poisoning every day. But the DEA states: “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

So why do people think pot is especially pernicious? The answer may have something to do with religion and philosophy, as Ron Paul hinted. Psychoactive drugs alter consciousness. Alternative modes of consciousness open the door to different ways of thinking.

This point was made by Aldous Huxley, who experimented with psychedelic drugs over 50 years ago. In his book, “The Doors of Perception,” Huxley claimed that “the urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood” was a “principal appetite of the soul.” He argued that when religion fails to satisfy that urge, people turn to drugs. These “chemical surrogates” of religious experience fulfill a basic longing for transcendence.

Fifty years before Huxley, the American philosopher William James made a similar point. He experimented with nitrous oxide intoxication. He was fascinated by reports of mystical experiences.

James saw rational consciousness – normal waking time – as “one special type of consciousness.” Other forms of consciousness are available to us through drug use or mysticism. James was a libertarian and a pluralist. He was open to experiments in living and in consciousness.

There is a fundamental question here about what we value about consciousness and perceived reality. Philosophers have usually cherished the problem-solving abilities of the rational mind. Sober-minded people view intoxication as degenerate and dysfunctional. But mystics value the irrational. Mystics seek enlightenment in altered states of consciousness.

Mystics have often challenged traditional authority. The mystical experience is subjective. It roams free of established dogmas and rituals. Mystics have often led revolutionary movements. The apostle Paul, the prophet Mohammed, and the man who became Buddha each had a mystical experience. They each went on to found a new religion.

Chemical surrogates seem especially disruptive of tradition. If a drug can cause the scales to fall off our eyes, we may not need religion at all.

I have no idea if this explains why Jeff Sessions really thinks stoners are bad. Nor do I believe that recreational pot-smokers are generally seeking spiritual enlightenment. But cultural conservatives generally want to control consciousness, while libertarians want to set it free.

The imagery of cannabis culture demonstrates this dichotomy. Marijuana is associated with alternative lifestyles and radical politics. The poor and marginalized smoke weed, along with artists and revolutionaries. The heroes of pot culture are rebels like Bob Marley.

The heroes of straight culture are, well, authority figures like Jeff Sessions. Straight culture celebrates social conformity and traditional religious and cultural values.

We see this dichotomy in California’s marijuana marketplace. You can already buy pot in hippy enclaves like Berkeley. But we will likely never see legal weed in the straight-laced Central Valley.

This dynamic may change as cannabis becomes boring, bourgeois, and mainstream. Marijuana might lose its counter-cultural cachet when it becomes associated with old white people like Ron Paul. That might even drive rebellious youth back to traditional values. In a stoned culture, the sober man is a rebel.

Libertarians are open to those possibilities. Conservatives are not. At any rate, a great social experiment is unfolding. It will be interesting to observe how this experiment changes our understanding of cannabis, consciousness, and culture.

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