Are Cannabis Laws Paternalistic?
Written by Gabriel Rench on October 27, 2017
For several years Peter Hitchens has made a sustained argument against the legalization of cannabis. One feature of his argument is to point out the correlation between cannabis use, mental illness, and violent crime. He links mental illness with both legal and illegal mind-altering drugs, such as cannabis, and then goes on to show that much violent crime is committed by people using such drugs, many of whom are mentally ill. It is quite the tangled web of cause and effect, and Hitchens believes the evidence is sufficient to sustain current laws that criminalize cannabis possession and usage. Of course, not every instance of cannabis use results in violent crime and not every user turns violent, but enough evidence exists to show a correlation between the two that we must outlaw the usage of marijuana in order to prevent the violence. For a sampling of Hitchens’ arguments, see here, here, here, here, and here.
The question before us is this: Is it paternalism and/or moralism to criminalize cannabis on the basis of its relation to potential future crime?
Before proceeding further, we should note the distinction between sins and crimes. Not all sins are crimes, and therefore should not be punishable by the civil government. Enforcing virtuous living is moralism and is outside the rightful authority of the magistrate. Likewise, not all crimes, as defined by rebellious governments, are sins. For example, some governments make evangelism a crime, but preaching the Gospel is most certainly not a sin. We must keep this distinction in mind when discussing civil law. The recreational use of cannabis as a drug is sinful because it falls under the prohibition against drunkenness. But does the civil government have any business in making this personal sin a public crime?
The answer is complicated by the fact that biblical law generally punishes actual crime after the fact, not potential crime that has not yet occurred. For example, the Israelites were commanded in Deuteronomy 22:8 to build parapets for their roofs “so that [they] will not bring bloodguilt on [their] house if anyone falls from it.” One would become guilty if someone fell from his roof and he had not taken the proper precautions and safety measures. But biblical law does not preemptively punish an Israelite that does not put up a parapet. Rather, he incurs guilt—and civil punishment—when harm actually takes place. Criminalizing cannabis on the basis of potential crime seemingly opens Pandora’s box to the idea of preemptive justice, a concept that can run amok in an administrative nanny state.
Acknowledging the above issues, I’m still inclined to agree with Hitchens that we should keep cannabis illegal. It is an issue of wisdom, which means that we do not have a specific verse that makes the obvious case for criminalization. Rather, we have a collection of evidence that, when weighed properly, supports the wisdom of banning marijuana use. To begin with we acknowledge the sinfulness of recreational marijuana usage, and that we are not dealing with something morally neutral.
Second, God made some laws in accommodation to the sinfulness of the Israelites.
“They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”—Matthew 19:7-8
Their hearts were hard, therefore Moses allowed divorce. We, too, are a nation of hard hearts; we are a sick people. We have disrobed ourselves, throwing off the law of God, and are now running around naked, in the rain, screaming obscenities. In short, we have gone mad. We have shown no collective discipline for decades. We are actively and institutionally encouraging one type of drug use (psychotropic), while considering making another (cannabis) part of our corporate free market enterprise. We have abandoned all standards for arguing recreational drug use is wrong, thus opening the doors for widespread usage and its violent consequences. I can imagine a scenario where criminalizing marijuana would not be necessary, where the government’s footprint is smaller in this area, and a free and virtuous people are left alone to choose wisely. But given our current hardness of heart, I do not believe we are living in that scenario. We are not a virtuous people. Legalizing cannabis now would have the effect of encouraging its use and, thus, encouraging the violent crime it spawns. Therefore, I view marijuana laws as accommodations to a hard-hearted and rebellious society.
But these laws are not mere moralism, for their purpose is not to enforce a sober-minded and pious citizenry. Rather, they are an extension of a government’s baseline duties: to protect the innocent and punish the evildoer.
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” —Romans 13:3-4
The correlation between mind-altering drugs, including cannabis, and violent crime is such that laws banning their use falls under the category of justice. According to Hitchens, “mind-altering drugs are involved in almost every alleged terror incident of recent times, as well as in almost every American shooting or rampage killing.” Therefore, a government that outlaws cannabis is fulfilling its duty to protect the innocent. I suppose one could call this paternalism, but only in a certain sense and if one recognizes that this is because fathers and magistrates share a responsibility to protect those in their charge.
I recognize the dangers of the nanny state, the busybody government that usurps personal responsibility and erodes liberty. But I do not believe criminalizing cannabis use is a function of a nanny state. Rather, because of the correlated violence, it is the wise action of a government fulfilling its duty to protect its people. Marijuana laws are not tsk-tsk-ing from our betters on high, but are the magistrates faithfully bearing their God-given sword in the cause of justice.