Reefer madness: legal & moral issues surrounding the medical prescription of marijuana

R E Barnes
Bioethics 2000, 14 (1): 16-41
California, Arizona, and several other states have recently legalized medical marijuana. My goal in this paper is to demonstrate that even if one grants the opponents of legalization many of their contentious assumptions, the federal government is still obligated to take several specific steps toward the legalization of medical marijuana. I defend this claim against a variety of objections, including the claims: that marijuana is unsafe, that marijuana cannot be adequately tested or produced as a drug, that the availability of synthetic THC makes marijuana superfluous, and especially that legalizing medical marijuana will increase recreational use by 'sending the wrong message.' I then go on to argue that given the intransigent position of the federal government on this issue, state governments are justified in unilaterally legalizing medical marijuana as an act of civil disobedience. A large portion of this paper consists of an extensive response to the objection that legalizing medical marijuana will 'send the wrong message'--which I take to be the primary impediment to legalization. This objection basically claims that the consequences of withholding legalization (especially preventing increased recreational use) are superior to those of legalizing medical marijuana. I argue that legalization is justified even if one were to grant both that the harms of legalization outweighed its benefits and that utilitarianism is true. This requires a subtle and somewhat extended discussion of utilitarian moral and political theory.

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