Legalizing Pot? Facing the Realities of Altering Reality

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Sergei Bachlakov

John Stackhouse tackled this issue a year ago for us, and his concerns remain, so we post this again on the eve of “420”.


As Parliament prepares to discuss legalization of marijuana, here are some realities with which we all must reckon.

#1: There is no exact parallel with the legalization of marijuana in our culture today. The usual candidates are alcohol and tobacco, but they are not the same as pot.

Alcohol? People legitimately drink beer, wine, and spirits because they like the taste of beer, wine, and spirits. Do many people drink alcohol merely to alter their consciousness, which is the only reason anyone smokes pot? Of course. But if there were equally enjoyable nonalcoholic beverages and we kept alcohol legal merely for people to intoxicate themselves, we might have an exact parallel with marijuana. We don’t, so we don’t.

Tobacco? Tobacco use took general root before its health hazards were known. And there is sensual pleasure to be had, I’m told, in smoking fine cigars and pipes. So we allow people to risk their health in order to enjoy those pleasures even as we continue to pay a frightful toll in health care for the many, many victims of tobacco’s many harms.

The purported parallel with tobacco doesn’t help the pro-pot side much anyhow. Would our society have been better off if we had never legalized tobacco? Does anyone even wonder about that?

#2: The actual parallel with marijuana is (other) narcotics. People smoke marijuana for the same reason many people ingest stronger narcotics: alteration of consciousness. Yet we rightly fear addiction. We rightly fear brain damage. We rightly fear other psychological and physiological outcomes from chronic narcotic use.

So we don’t sell codeine or morphine or oxycontin at the liquor store, just as we don’t sell cocaine and heroin. But we’re going to sell marijuana?

#3: Impaired driving is one of the great scandals of our era. Tens of thousands of North Americans die every year in alcohol-related accidents. Penalties for impaired driving, after decades of advocacy by MADD and other agencies, are still laughably low, even as a DUI conviction is now a badge of considerable shame.

Making marijuana both legal and more available to drivers cannot possibly help but result in a proportional rise in traffic deaths, as the statistics from Colorado (mentioned on the show) grimly indicate.

Are we really reckoning with this cost, or just focusing on finally being able to enjoy that joint in peace after a stressful day?

(Self-driving cars cannot come soon enough.)

#4: Some people do toke up just for a mild groove. But many, many do not. Will we keep trying to alleviate the social and personal ills that drive people to numb themselves against the pain of abuse, of unemployment, of poverty, and of loneliness? Or are we settling for the Brave New World approach by making sure everyone has enough soma, the government-issued intoxicant featured in that novel, to keep everyone docile?

One of the guests on the show told us that she gave up marijuana because “We’re not meant to escape reality.” Another guest said he went straight once he realized that drugs weren’t actually helping, and that a Higher Power actually would.

Real life is tough, but it’s real. Is opening the floodgates to pot really loving my neighbour, really caring for her at some cost to myself? Or is it just letting her tranquilize herself, which makes her less of a bother, even as the hidden costs grow?

Smoking marijuana might make you lazy. Legalizing it might be lazy, too.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).