Last week, I wrote an article about the Church’s silence in regard to the morality of marijuana use.  I encourage you to read it in full, but it boiled down to: The Church has been silent because she is as ignorant as the rest of us, and it might be that marijuana falls in with the most consumed psychotropic substances in the world—alcohol and caffeine.

A few days later, I sat down to write a follow-up piece concerning the principle of the toleration of evil, which is a recognition that sometimes the greater good for society comes at the expense of tolerating an evil.  I tried to be even-handed, while still promoting the idea that we must consider the possibility that tolerating marijuana is better than outlawing it.  However, I scrapped it.  Rather than promoting the creation of a debate on whether to tolerate a hypothetical evil, I want to begin the discussion and demonstrate how a Catholic can support legalization.

What is the Toleration of Evil

Pope Leo XIII gave us this great summary:

…as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence. But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, “neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good.”

We tolerate alcohol abuse, to an extent, because prohibition set the stage for greater evil and the creation of a worse society.  We tolerate all kinds of evil done in private, because the only way to enforce laws against it would require extensive violations of privacy, which is a massive affront to human dignity.  Today, it could be argued, prohibition of marijuana is even less effective than was the prohibition of alcohol.  Barrels of liquor were destroyed, prices increased.  Now, tons—literally, multiple tons—of marijuana is confiscated, but prices do not change.  This is a clear indicator that supply is well-beyond demand.

Of course, that government fails in an attempt to do something good does not mean it should give up.  That is not a valid argument.  The point being made here is that the failure to keep marijuana out of consumers’ hands has failed so epically, that there is hardly any benefit to society from marijuana prohibition.  Lawlessness is not a legitimate response, but legal limitations—age restrictions, blood-alcohol-content, etc.—are only conceivable in a system where the substance itself isn’t outlawed.

It may, in fact, be argued that marijuana prohibition has made for a worse society.  Black markets are self-regulated, but in the worst of ways.  There are no rules, no limits.  Black market proprietors have no legal protections, no recourse to the courts when competitors misbehave.  Each player must fend for himself and provide his own “protection.”  This leads to violence from cartels and traffickers and dealers.  Of course, the monetary profits from marijuana sales go primarily to these violent people.  The money helps perpetuate their violence, and it leads to corruption and bribery as well.

Consider the opportunity costs

A 2010 study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimated the federal and state expenditures for enforcing the prohibition of marijuana alone were approximately 8.7 billion dollars annually.  Where could that $8.7 billion be otherwise allocated?  Addiction treatment and prevention programs seem like an obvious choice, but I bet it could be spread beyond that.

Perhaps some of those funds could aid in the effort to keep meth, cocaine, and heroine from becoming as common as cannabis.  Maybe a portion could go to improving or creating crime labs so that our clearance rates on murder and rape could go up a couple percentage points.  Although, the fact that gang violence should decrease with decriminalization or legalization might mean that clearance rates improve anyhow.

Decriminalization or Legalization

One of my greatest concerns with recreational marijuana use is that consumers do not know what they are using.  How much THC is in this bud?  Is there much CBD in this weed?  What’s the ratio of the cannabinoids in this?  All of those questions matter, because they all factor into the effect that the marijuana has on the user.  Yet none of these questions can be answered as long as marijuana is not regulated.

Caffeine is a pretty potent substance.  How likely would you be to drink a cup of joe in the morning if you never knew whether it would be decaffeinated drip or a triple espresso?  What if the wine you bought had an unknown and imperceptible amount of alcohol in it?  You wouldn’t know if that glass was equivalent to a light beer or high-proof rum.  Seems pretty stupid, huh?  And that is one of the principal issues that persists when cannabis is merely decriminalized.  Only if marijuana is legal can it be standardized and appropriately regulated.

We’re Left With This

On one side, we have a failed and costly effort to prevent marijuana use.  Prohibition is the foundation for a violent black market that takes lives and destabilizes governments.  On the other side is the elimination of the evils of prohibition and the possibility to effectively regulate what we cannot eliminate.  And with marijuana being so ubiquitous, the reckless members of society are probably marijuana consumers already, meaning the only potential consumers to be added to their ranks are the more cautious and responsible among us.  Personally, I think human dignity is more respected and the common good is better served with legalization.

So, you need not wonder whether your Catholic faith demands that you oppose marijuana legalization—it doesn’t!

Please note: In my earlier article, I explicitly argued only against poor reasoning that attempted to identify recreational marijuana use as necessarily sinful.  In this article, for the sake of the argument in favor of legalization according to the principle of the toleration of evil, I have set aside the issue of the morality of recreational marijuana use, assuming that it is an evil.  Thus, my conclusions would only be bolstered if it were shown that recreational use of marijuana can be morally licit.

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.