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Why John Stuart Mill Would Endorse the Legalization of Marijuana

April 6, 2011

While walking through the Diag on Saturday, or moreover, weaving my way through the drum circles and hula-hooping contests that had made their annual surfacing, I couldn’t help but overhear the words of a passionate orator advocating for the legalization of Marijuana. I will admit, the man’s enthusiasm piqued my interest, and seeing as it was a decent alternative to studying in the library, I stopped and listened. This man was a good speaker – he had a captivated crowd, and indeed it was growing by the minute. While, at first, I couldn’t understand how a dreadlocked man in a poncho could induce such a gathering, I understand now. He made sense.

Anyone who heard one sentence of this man’s speech would agree his passion transcended a mere love of pot.  In fact, his words had little to do with Marijuana. The man argued that Marijuana laws are in strict discordance with the liberties, we as Americans, hold so sacred.  He avowed that government does not have the right to tell him what he can and cannot do, so long as he is not hurting anyone else in his actions. This assertion brought to mind John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a piece I was required to read for my political science course. Mill argues in his work that society cannot hold people accountable for choices they make, so long as those choices only affect them. He asserts that while it is encouraged to show disapproval of an action through persuasion or avoidance, he writes that silencing one’s personal choices is a dangerous thing for a government to do. He goes so far as to argue that police must respect an individual’s right to harm himself, and must only intervene if another’s liberties are in jeopardy. Since much of our nation’s mores are rooted in the precept of pursuing one’s own happiness, it follows that people should have the right to smoke Marijuana if they so choose. However, it is not the case.

Surely, if Marijuana is illegal, there is a reason. If it endorses the drug’s illegality, our government must feel that Marijuana is not only detrimental to the individual, but also to the well being of society as a whole. This makes sense – perhaps it is impossible to ensure that people’s getting high does not infringe on others’ rights. Indeed, it is unreasonable to assume some drug users would not attempt to pressure others into using – something that would be nearly impossible to enforce. Further, having police patrol for crimes like “high driving” would distract them from responding to other emergencies, thus detracting from the well being of society as a whole.  Mill would argue, however, that there are much larger and lasting detriments to restricting rights than there are benefits. He asserts that too much governmental power stifles human development and ultimately hinders society’s progress. I would argue that in making Marijuana illegal, the government has already realized damaging consequences.

Like the prohibition of alcohol promoted organized crime and illegal trafficking, so too has the illegality of Marijuana had unintended penalties. Drug trade now bolsters organized crime, and gang warfare, fueled by the exorbitant profits associated with acquiring and selling illegal Marijuana, has taken countless casualties. I cannot help but agree with the great narrator in the poncho; if we want to sustain a healthy future for our nation and ensure the lasting security of our rights, we must reconsider the legality of Marijuana.

  1. lexifader permalink
    April 6, 2011 12:05 PM

    I really liked this blog and happened to agree with everything. I still do not understand why marijuana has not been legalized. My dad came to Ann Arbor on Saturday and we could not help but observing all the people around campus who were “high.” The strange thing was that the crowds of people were not affecting or harming themselves or anyone around them, so Mill would definitely argue that Marijuana should be legalized. This also got me thinking that alcohol is legal once one turns 21, yet if there were the same amount of people were drunk on the diag on Saturday as there were high, I can bet that things would have gotten a little messy and at times dangerous. How can the government permit alcohol to be legal when drunk driving kills someone everyone 39 minutes in the U.S, but not marijuana? ( data from If Mill were around these days I think he would petition for the prohibition of alcohol and argue for the legalization of pot. Also, if marijuana was legalized, drug trafficking would decrease severely and the gov’t could tax on the drug and use the money to better programs in this country.

  2. kcarney91 permalink
    April 6, 2011 2:10 PM

    I definitely agree with your reasoning in this bost. Mill was all about freedoms and liberties and in this case, using marijuana would be considered a right. There is not a lot of potential danger associated with using the drug, and virtually no harm on other individuals if others use. I feel these all apply and coencide with Mills beliefs and agree that he would support the legalization of marijuana.

  3. Brian Fisher permalink
    April 6, 2011 2:33 PM

    I’m not quite sure if I agree with your assessment of Mill’s views on the legalization of marijuana. Mill makes it quite clear that an individual can practically do anything(like commit suicide) as long as it does not place harm on another individual. It seems like the main argument here is whether or not marijuana usage imposes harm on a non-user. I would argue that marijuana usage does in fact pose harm to someone not abusing the drug, most notably the abuser’s parents. Parents do not like to see their child smoking pot. However, this brings about another question. How can we measure if someone else is harmed by another individual’s actions? Does it have to necessarily be physical damage or can emotional distress be considered harm as well? If Mill proposes the later of the two than marijuana will most definitely pose harm on others. However, if Mill only considers physical harm, than by all means I believe Mill would allow everyone to smoke pot because only the abuser faces physical and psychological degression from the drug.

    • mllamendola1 permalink
      April 6, 2011 3:01 PM

      Brian, I appreciate your feedback, but I think you may have misinterpreted my point. I admit in my piece that legalizing Marijuana may induce societal detriments. Further, I agree that its legalization, like that of any drug, could prove to negatively affect non-users. However, Mill argues that restricting an individual’s right to pursue his interests will have much more devastating consequences than it will have benefits. Besides the fact that the black market for marijuana has bolstered criminal institutions and fueled unnecessary violence, I would argue that its illegality marks a stark discordance with the liberties we value so much – ironically, in order to save society from the drug’s harms. If you agree that Mill was at all a practical thinker, you must concur that he would advocate for the legalization of Marijuana.

    • H from New Zealand permalink
      August 7, 2011 8:55 PM

      Hi Brian, your argument brings up some interesting ideas. However your “parents affected by children smoking” is not the best example. In what ways do you propose that a child smoking marijuana affects parents?

      For starters if you read Mills ‘On Liberty’ essay, he points out clearly that the harm principle does not apply to children or young people not yet legally an adult. “We are not speaking of children or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood.” So if marijuana were to be legalised for one could assume he would suggest an age restriction much like the restrictions on alcohol or tobacco.

      Also there may be some parents out there that use cannabis themselves? If their children were to smoke cannabis, how would they be affected?

      Maybe a better example would have been how would a child be affected if their parents used cannabis?

  4. Jeff DeClaire permalink
    April 6, 2011 2:47 PM

    I agree with your evaluation that Mill would agree with the legalization of marijuana. Smoking marijuana poses only a detriment to the individual actually smoking it, not the people around him. I think Mill would use the argument that cigarettes are essentially the same thing. Why are cigarettes legal, when marijuana isn’t? In fact, cigarettes may even be more harmful than marijuana because of the detrimental second hand smoke that can be consumed by people around a smoker. I also agree that we need to consider the legalization of marijuana to ensure the security of our rights. In this case, the government is essentially telling what to do and what not to do. We should have the ability to choose for ourselves, if it does not harm other people.

  5. chelseahoedl permalink
    April 6, 2011 3:55 PM

    If Mill suggests that committing suicide does not harm others and is therefore permissible than I find it hard to believe he would find smoking marijuana harmful to others. If smoking marijuana is harmful to someones parents then certainly committing suicide is even more harmful to them and I believe that this is where Brian’s argument falls through. While I agree with you, there are many ways one could argue that smoking marijuana is potentially harmful to others, there is little room to suggest that Mill would think so.

    With regards to the comparison between marijuana and alcohol, I feel that if one is legal the other should be as well. When used incorrectly (driving high or drunk) these substances can cause harm to others, but isn’t that true of numerous freedoms we have in life?

  6. Ravi Shah permalink
    April 6, 2011 4:35 PM

    I think this is an interesting topic, but some of the arguments that are being made in some of the comments don’t make alot of sense to me. People are tending to say things like, tobacco is legal, so weed should be too. I do not think this is the smartest argument to make. Smoking tobacco has detrimental impacts on people other then the user as many smokers have health problems that society has to pay. I think that it is possible that we made a mistake in allowing tobacco to be legal. Now though, the tobacco companies are so powerful that it is hard to make tobacco illegal. The same is not true with weed. The government still has enough power to keep it illegal. Saying that tobacco is legal, so weed should be too, is like saying we screwed up once, why not do it again.

  7. Anna Gwiazdowski permalink
    April 6, 2011 7:56 PM

    Coming from California, a state known for the Emerald Triangle, where the crop of choice is marijuana, I understand where most people’s posts are coming from. Legalizing marijuana would lessen the amount of money spent on police enforcement in that sector, save the state money they spend on prisoners who get put away for having to much marijuana, and if the government put a high tax on it, they could probably lessen the state budget deficit.

    I also understand the argument about alcohol vs. marijuana. You hear about more car accidents and more deaths from alcohol use than you do marijuana. As lexifader stated, someone dies every 39 minutes from a drunk driving accident. So why isn’t marijuana legal?

    Mill would probably agree with the majority of comments that argue for why he would believe marijuana should be legalized. However, there one thing might hinder that agreement: the obligation of parents to their children.

    This is an extreme example, but it shows why Mill would be hesitant about legalizing marijuana, and perhaps even be in favor of continuing the ban. I am related to someone who started out smoking pot. The addiction led to experimenting with other drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, and heroin. About a year ago she and her husband were arrested; her husband went to prison, charged with “intent to sell,” while she was put on probation for repeated possession. Lucky for her; not lucky for her 5 children. Since her drug addiction began with marijuana, she wasn’t able to care for any of her 5 children. For a very long time, 3 of them lived with her mom,while the youngest two lived with other relatives. She and her husband couldn’t care and didn’t care about their kids; marijuana was more important to them. Mill believes that obligations to your family limit your freedom of speech. Mill would find the abandonment of your children, because you care more about a drug, reason to limit this particular freedom of speech.

    As I said before, that’s an extreme example, but it does explain why Mill may not be so keen on the idea of legalizing marijuana.

    • pmrobfraz permalink
      April 12, 2011 11:08 AM

      Anna, I understand where you’re coming from with your example, but as you said it is the extreme. Not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic. I know there are individuals that start with marijuana and end up using much harder drugs, but it seems to me that the problem of addiction is more a problem of the individual, not the drug. One knows what they’re getting themselves into when using hard drugs and if their kids weren’t enough to stop them in the first place it’s hard to argue that they ever would have been good parents to begin with.

      That being said, I think Mill would agree with the idea of legalizing marijuana, at the very least for medical purposes. It seems to me to be more difficult to argue how marijuana is harmful to society than it is to argue how it is beneficial to society.

  8. jasonkraman permalink
    April 8, 2011 2:44 PM

    This argument has been debated at lengths but Id like throw my two cents in. First of all, to properly assess the use of marijuanna under the Harm Principle, one must know all of its effects and consequences. The use and distribution of marijuana negatively effects so many people that is hard to argue that it would effortlessly pass the Harm Principle. However, Mill does believe in “experiments of living”. Perhaps Mill would like the government to listen to people for the legalization of pot and further experiment with the implementation of laws that allow marijuana use. Again, its hard to know how exactly Mill would grade the drug under the Harm Principle, but in my opinion he wouldn’t be completely opposed to a government testing out the effects of its legalization.

  9. kkokotil permalink
    April 16, 2011 10:01 PM

    In my opinion, I think Mill would favor the legalization of marijuana. Although it can be abused, so can a million other things such as food, sex, video games, etc. yet those things aren’t illegal obviously. Addiction is a dangerous thing and I agree with the previous comment that addiction may be more of an issue than the drug itself. I think that if you look at the big picture, the prohibition of marijuana is doing more harm than good for many reasons. Also, marijuana actually does a lot of good for people who use it for medical purposes, and I know those people’s parents don’t think any less of their child for using it. In addition, the prohibition of marijuna makes the development of hemp as a valuable agricultural crop very difficult, which limits its’ development as a new bio-fuel to reduce carbon emissions. Since Mill believed in the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, I think he would definately favor its legalization.

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