For decades the United States has spent billions of dollars and put millions of people in jail in an effort to fight the sale and use of illegal narcotics. The most popular of these drugs is marijuana. In 2012, almost 19 million Americans used marijuana, which is about 5% of the entire population. With minimal side-effects and such widespread use, we have to ask, why is marijuana use illegal. In his book On Liberty, author John Stuart Mill argues that society should only prohibit actions that are harmful to the rest of society, and that actions that only harm the individual should be allowed. However, this is not how the United States operates. Dozens of drugs have been made illegal for recreational use, including marijuana. If Mill ran the country, stoners and potheads would rejoice, because marijuana would surely be legalized.
In his book, Mill suggests that society only has the right to use force against actions that are harmful to others. In the case of marijuana, Mill would consider this as a “self-regarding vice” because it only affects the person who is using the drug. The same would go for things like alcohol and tobacco, which are, in fact, legal in the United States. However, after learning about the negative effects of secondhand smoke, many enclosed areas like restaurants and office buildings prohibit smoking because of its negative effects. This ideology is very consistent with Mill’s ideas because tobacco is only prohibited when it affects others in society. In those cases, society is allowed to step in and use force, according to Mill.
But marijuana doesn’t have many secondhand effects. The drug only affects the person using it, so why is it illegal? Not only does it conflict with Mill’s ideas, but it is actually a huge missed opportunity for the United States. According to a report from GreenWave advisors, if marijuana were legalized in all 50 states, the market for the drug could be worth as much as $35 billion. Colorado passed Colorado Amendment 64, which legalized the use of recreational marijuana for adults age 21 and over, and the law has been extremely successful.
The success of this new law shows that Mill’s ideas, when put into effect, actually work quite well. Not only are people allowed to use marijuana freely, but the economic and tax benefits are extended to all the citizens of Colorado with no foreseeable negatives. John Stuart Mill would certainly support Colorado Amendment 64, and he would also support federal legalization of marijuana. But Mill wouldn’t just stop there.
According to Mill, any self-regarding vice, no matter how harmful, should be allowed without societal interference. So, this would suggest that any type of narcotic should be allowed to be used recreationally. This would allow for the use of heroine, cocaine, LSD, and many more illicit drugs. While in theory this idea of allowing all self-regarding vices makes sense, in practice, it seems that we have to draw the line somewhere. As a society, we don’t want to allow all drugs because many of them are far more harmful than others. So we should take Mill’s advice with a grain of salt. But as far as marijuana, Mill’s ideology would help our society.