Marijuana Legalization: What Would Aquinas Really Say?

David Freddoso recently asked the question:What Would Aquinas Say about Legalizing Weed?” In particular he argues against what he considers to be a specious argument from David Brooks that legalizing marijuana is akin to endorsing it.

In his piece, “Weed: Been There. Done That” Brooks notes:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? … In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

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Freddoso responds to Brooks by arguing that legalizing marijuana “is simply an absence of prohibition,” not an encouragement. He draws on Aquinas for support of his position, noting that the Angelic Doctor argued that not everything that is immoral should be prohibited, but only serious vices that harm others and undermine the preservation of society (ST I-II, q. 96, a. 2). Therefore, he states:

Even proponents of prohibition will usually agree that the act of smoking weed does not on its own assault the civil order or harm others. At that point, the question should be a comparison between the ravages of the drug war itself and any additional damage we expect drugs to do if they become legal.

However, I agree with Brooks that the legalization will mold culture. Though he argues that legalizing pot encourages the rise of a certain kind of individual, I think that this focus also needs to be broadened to a discussion of the common good.  This is where Aquinas can help and where we see that his position, when read more comprehensively, should not be seen as favoring the legalization of marijuana. What is at stake in this question is the transfer of drugs from a strong subculture into the mainstream culture in America, which will affect the lives of us all.

We can begin by simply looking at the past. Freddoso thinks that marijuana is not akin to the debate over gay marriage, because it does not entail a public endorsement. However, we have seen consistently that controversies that begin as a matter of private rights soon create a new public culture. Take the examples of contraception and abortion. Both could be obtained (and were) before they were legal. Both were legalized in terms of private rights (particularly privacy). However, we have now reached the point where contraception is almost completely a universal practice, abortions have been performed by the tens of millions, and both are now publicly subsidized (and even mandated in the case of contraception). The effect of these practices on the general culture has been enormous, with birth rates dropping dramatically since their legalization.

One could say that lumping contraception and abortion together is unfair as the latter is much more grievous and harmful to others. The two belong together, however, because they both represent a major shift in understanding how one’s life relates to the common good. Is sexuality something that merely exists for sake of the individual, as a private right? To the contrary, sexuality is rooted ultimately in our order toward the propagation of the species, the very continuation of the human race. Sexual morality is rooted in the natural law, because we have a natural obligation and duty for the future of humanity. Our lives are not simply our own, as we are not isolated and autonomous beings, but are bound together in responsibility for our shared good.

What about marijuana? The issue is not as grave as the propagation of the species, right? It is true that drug use may be a sin of lesser gravity (depending on the details), but I have argued previously that it hits at the very foundation of human life, our rationality. The purpose, or final end, of the individual is the happiness found in the contemplation of the highest truths (according to Aristotle and also Aquinas, who extends this to the vision of God). Furthermore, the community has the same end as the individual, happiness, which it pursues by creating a just and virtuous society. As Aristotle explains: “The end of politics is the best of ends; and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions” (Ethics, 1099b30). And furthermore, a “city is excellent, at any rate, by its citizens … being excellent,” which means virtuous (Politics, 1332a34). When the individual is consistently impeded from pursuing the end or goal of human life, even through private, personal fault, society itself is demeaned; when this occurs, everyone is impeded in the “partnership” of the shared pursuit of the good (ibid., 1252a3).

Let’s come back more explicitly to Aquinas, who, of course, draws upon Aristotle in his understanding of law. Reason continues to be a central issue, when looking at drugs from a political, not simply a moral, perspective. Law, for Aquinas, is a dictate of reason, for “it belongs to the reason to direct to the end, which is the first principle in all matters of action” (ST I-II, q. 90, a. 1). Law is meant to reflect right reason on how we should live together to pursue the common good, which is our happiness!

The law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness. Moreover, since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must needs regard properly the relationship to universal happiness (ibid., a. 2).

Fundamentally, Aquinas has a different conception of law than we do today. Rather than primarily securing personal rights, law is meant to lead the individual beyond the self to an exterior and shared good: “the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good” (ST I-II, q. 92, a. 1).

It is true that some immoral things need to be tolerated (Freddoso gives the example of not wiping), but this cannot be used as an excuse to permit things that undermine goodness and happiness on a fundamental level. If drugs attack the faculty that leads to happiness, reason, then there are legitimate grounds to think that it will threaten the maintenance of society and consequently hurt others. With Brooks, we have to ask what kind of citizen we want in our country. Our laws should reflect that ideal (though we do not generally have a shared ideal today).

Once again, legalizing drugs brings them into the mainstream of our culture. It makes them an ordinary and acceptable phenomenon. We can see this happening already in Colorado. After only a few days of legalized recreational marijuana, stores are already selling out. Researchers at Colorado State University offered what they considered to be a low estimate that about 12.5 percent of state residents will smoke pot (the key to the study is trying to figure out how much revenue will come in taxes). Entering a legitimate “shop” next to other legitimate businesses does not necessarily make marijuana more accessible. Marijuana already can be found easily, but it does send a different message. It legitimizes the purchase:  using your Visa card differs slightly from clandestinely slipping money to a dealer. Others, especially the youth, see this legitimacy and normalcy, and the use of marijuana will lose its remaining stigma. In fact, the Denver Post has noted already that legalizing marijuana has encouraged some Coloradans to rethink their position on pot and to give it a try, because now it is “easy, convenient and legal.” By legalizing marijuana we are saying that we no longer see it as fundamentally detrimental to human life and society.

Finally, just a word on the war on drugs. The argument that drugs should remain illegal is not the same as advocating for a continuation of the “war on drugs.” There is now widespread, popular consensus that the war on drugs has failed and has brought about new problems in its own right. If we do not wish to accept the legitimacy of drug use, we need to find new ways to combat it. As Freddoso himself notes, law has a pedagogical function for Aquinas. That does not mean that keeping marijuana illegal will in itself be enough to educate youth on its negative effects (we know from experience that it won’t), but it is an important starting point.

But really, this issue is part of a much larger problem. It is fair to say that we are living in the midst of a crisis of the common good. In fact, we tend to think that the ultimate good is the individual. Personal inclination—our pleasures, emotions, and desires—more and more are the “moral” foundation of our choices. What is shared is the common pursuit of material goods: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Wealth creation is the standard by which we judge the success of our society. In fact, marijuana is playing into this consumerist culture: the individual wants the pleasure of the commodity and the State wants tax revenues. In response, we need to rediscover the common good, a good that transcends the limits of personal whims and the fluctuations of the economy. To overcome the cultural problem of the legalization of marijuana, we need to rebuild a shared culture with ends beyond the individual—ultimately the end, which all share, and which can only make us truly happy.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photograph of Barack Obama who in his youth was known to have been a casual user of marijuana.


  • R. Jared Staudt

    R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author, most recently, of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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