Much to the pleasure of potheads throughout Australia, medical marijuana was legalised after changes to the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act 2016 came into effect allowing businesses to apply for a licence to cultivate cannabis or manufacture cannabis products for medicinal purposes, or to conduct related research. While this is no doubt good news, and a step in the right direction, the supposed medical benefits or consequences of cannabis usage are irrelevant as to whether its usage should be a criminal offence. Smoking cannabis is a victimless crime that should be legal because consenting adults should have the freedom to make their own life choices.
There are many arguments for the legalisation of cannabis that include but not limited to: it would significantly weaken organised crime; it would raise much needed revenue for the government; potheads are more mellow than drunks. But, to argue any of those points would be missing the greater point: what you choose to do with your own body is no one else’s business. Cannabis use and drug use more generally are victimless crimes and therefore shouldn’t be crimes at all.
John Stuart Mill in Chapter IV of his book, ‘On Liberty’ established what we now know as the harm-principle. He articulated this principle arguing that, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” If this principle was applied to drugs laws at the very least drug use would not be a criminal offence. Poor life decisions do not cause harm to others. To the extent that poor life decisions may harm others, for example, one’s family disapproving of those choices, any harm from those choices mostly affect the individual involved.
Another argument made, by some, in support of cannabis’s criminalisation is that the negative health side affects hurt society by burdening the public health sector. They would argue that some people who abuse cannabis end up requiring the help of mental health facilities and require the support of the social welfare system. Similar arguments are made against smoking, consuming sugar and other things the nanny-state don’t approve. I would argue that these reasons are insufficient to justify criminalisation. The primary risk is taken by the individual involved and many people do successful use cannabis without burdening society.
If cannabis was legalised and taxed the same as any other good, than the revenue raised would exceed any cost to society. I would also argue in the case of smoking, that these arguments don’t justify the enormous amount of taxation raised by the state, that far exceed any cost imposed on the health care system. While it might be reasonable to use taxes to cover any external costs of poor decisions, it’s unreasonable to use them as punishments for people making poor life choices.
Alternatively, the cost to individuals who do use cannabis when it’s criminalised are very significant. They risk gaining a criminal record, potentially serving gaol time and are given no choice to engage in a criminal act if they choose to use cannabis.
The cost to society is also significant. Firstly, by criminalising cannabis, society is by definition less free. Members of the society are denied the freedom to make a rational decision for themselves about the costs and benefits of cannabis use. In a free society, people should be free to make their own decisions. We should always be very cautious in our decision to limit the choices of other people. When we restrict the ability of people to make their own choices, we are by definition less free.
Secondly, policing victimless crimes comes at enormous financial and opportunity cost to society. There is only so much money society is willing to spend on policing and by policing victimless crimes there is an opportunity cost of policing crimes that are harmful to society and other individuals. According to Drug Law Reform Australia, $1.7 billion is spent annually on drug law enforcement of which 70% is attributed to cannabis. This comes at a huge opportunity cost to members of society, this money could be used to lower taxes or protecting people from crimes that have actual victims such as theft and murder. Since resources are scarce, it’s literally fair to say that the policing of victimless crimes makes society less free and less safe.
Criminal acts are acts that harm other people, by definition such acts should have victims. Cannabis use doesn’t have victims, it only has consenting adults, who make their own life choices. Cannabis use therefore shouldn’t be a crime and should be legalised.