Mill and Marijuana

In chapter IV of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill shares some insightful opinions on political theory, which have become very relevant in American politics today. Specifically, he discusses the basis of legality, claiming that any action which affects only the person doing the action, should be legally permitted. Though he specifies that most actions do inherently affect more than just that one person, he believes that something should only be deemed illegal if it hurts another citizen in any aspect, whether financially or physically. Crimes like murder, theft, or harassment, are illegal because they clearly abridge the rights of some citizens, but what about the consumption of marijuana? Mill’s argument has resonated in society today through the campaign for the legalization of marijuana consumption in numerous states.


John Stuart Mill


Marijuana, which is currently legal in two American states.

After Colorado and Washington have deemed the recreational use of marijuana legal, many positive changes seem to have occurred. Including a lower crime rate and increased government revenue from sales, the legalization of marijuana in those states has inspired numerous other states to adopt the same policy fighting any resistance with the claim that it affects only the consumer, no one else. Though I personally do not support the consumption of marijuana, there is substantial political support which may eventually lead to legislative change in the very near future. Based on Mill’s premise that marijuana consumption is not really harmful, there seems to be no reason for its illegality. If proponents have such compelling evidence to promote the legalization of marijuana consumption, why is it illegal in the United States?


Map of places where marijuana is legal

In the 1930’s, marijuana was named a drug by the United States Narcotic Drug Act. It was not allowed to be consumed or sold in the United States, until individual states began abolishing restrictions decades later. The reason for its prohibition stems from its effects on one’s physical and mental health. Marijuana, previously known as cannabis, is known to be detrimental for both brain development as well as lung health. Heavy users may have decreased lifespans due to marijuana’s effects on the lungs. Even though this can be considered harm, who is it really affecting? If smokers smoke, they are hurting no one but themselves, and that cannot be controlled by the government. Mill would agree that all people deserve personal freedoms, such as the right to smoke weed, as long as no other citizen is affected by the smoker’s actions.

Consider an average middle-aged man, Mr. Smith, who is politically engaged, economically stable, and physically healthy. If he one day decides to come home and smoke marijuana for recreational use, who would he be hurting? He certainly would not be abridging the rights of any other United States citizen, so why is marijuana illegal? What right does the government have to take away that personal freedom from Mr. Smith? If this issue was presented to Mill years ago, he would support the legalization of marijuana solely because of the personal freedoms that every American citizen is promised.

Statistics supporting the legalization of marijuana.

Statistics supporting the legalization of marijuana.

Following the same example, Mill would only oppose if Mr. Smith’s consumption of marijuana was in some way detrimental to society. For example, if he purchased marijuana while he was in debt to someone else, that would be a completely different story. Mr. Smith owes money to whoever lent it to him, and that is an obligation he must honor. If society adopted Mill’s political ideology, consuming the marijuana itself would not be considered criminal activity but failing to honor the loan would be.


Marijuana usage in other places around the world

To conclude, Mill would certainly enjoy modern political debates regarding the legalization of marijuana in several states. Taking a relatively liberal stance, he would support personal freedoms like the consumption of marijuana, as long as no other citizens are affected. Mill’s political ideology is certainly distinct from most other theorists of his time, and even centuries after he was born, his influence lives on. It is not difficult to apply his opinions to modern politics especially through efforts for numerous issues involving personal freedoms. Granted that all American citizens have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Mill just aimed to ensure that everyone can practice these rights while maintaining societal harmony.

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6 thoughts on “Mill and Marijuana

  1. I agree with many of your arguments and the connection between Mill and the legalization of marijuana certainly exists. However, I see a different way in which you could have presented Mill’s arguments. Mill is not only a believer in this “harm principle” that you outline in your post, but he also is a believer in non-traditional ways and a forging of multiple paths through experience. He believes that we should not look to the past when setting laws but look at the experiences individuals face in a free society in order to establish a well-rounded municipal.

    In this sense, Mill would be a believer in the legalization of marijuana because he believes in change, and not following what others have done in the past. He would embrace this change, adding the points you address saying that if it is not affecting anyone, this is a change for the better. If you would have added these points, I would view this as almost a perfect blog post connecting a clear course principle to a relevant issue in today’s culture.


  2. Thanks for the comprehensive post about marijuana and its legalization in certain states of America. To offer a perspective as the citizen of a country where the use (consumption and selling) of drugs is strictly banned (offenders are subject to penalties like life imprisonment and even death)- consider how permitting widespread use of drugs can affect the society at large. If I’m not wrong, Mill also said that ‘failure to do a distinct and assignable duty’ to others constitutes harm and merits punishment. If a person gets addicted to marijuana, this not only affects his own health and well-being, but also his family, how well he does his job (role as employee) and limits his contributions to society. Given how inter-connected our societies are, it is often hard to dichotomize harm to self and harm to others since self-inflicted harm often compromises our duty/responsibilities to others. I remember driving through Las Vegas once, past The Strip into the outskirts just 20 minutes away, and seeing numerous drug/gambling rehabilitation centres. It was the first time seeing such enclosed areas devoted to the rehabilitation of addicted drug-users, and it made me thankful that Singapore has actively prohibited the use of drugs. I am also glad that the ban did not backfire and breed more underground markets circulating drugs, because it is coupled with harsh and effective deterrents. Besides necessitating the expenditure of government funds (which come from taxes) on social support, higher rates of drug addiction caused by the legalization of recreational use of drugs can lead to drug addiction and a host of societal problems, particularly family breakdowns. Use of drugs for medical reasons, in limited dosage and authorized by doctors, is another issue altogether. I feel that would be reasonable if taking the drug is the only option left.


  3. I really liked your connection between Mill and marijuana. I think Mill’s theories definitely apply to this concept. In this way, I think it also mirrors the legalization of tobacco. Cigarettes are harmful to their users, but are not illegal because they only harm the individual using them.


  4. This was a great blog post. Your connection between Marijuana and and Mill’s opinions is something I would have never thought of had I not read this post. You state that Mill believes that any actions that affects only the individual and not others should be deemed legal. My question to you is what about drugs like cocaine? They are just like marijuana in that they only affect the individual, but clearly cocaine should be illegal. I thought you did a great job with your blogosphere, which helped your argument. If I were to change something in this post, I would have had you try and connect marijuana to politics (more of a discussion of politics, in other words). However, a great and really interesting post!


  5. You bring up a great argument! I like how you used Mill to relate it to the present day debate regarding the legalization of marijuana. Many, including myself, agree that smoking weed ultimately under certain limitations only affect the smoker. According to Mills for this reason it should be legal if anything since the only harm being done is the fact that smokers are being criminalized for even the smallest of possessions. However, the previous person brought up a great argument as well. In order for smoking marijuana to be seen as not harmful to others there needs to be specific limitations. That is exactly what the government has started to do in reference to making weed legal for those who have certain illness ( medical marijuana). Another possible limitation could be restricting smoking to only the house in order to restrict smokers from driving while under the influence and crashing. Yet, I guess Mill maybe would agree to these restriction on autonomy but they could help to reduce the amount of harm caused to others while still giving a individual some freedom.


  6. I really enjoyed this post. It is a really unique way to apply Mill’s theory to modern day life. Although I agree with you that Mill would for the most part believe that Marijuana should be legal, one could argue that its effects can be hurtful. For instance, what if one is high while driving? That could affect someone else if they get in an accident. Also, the decisions one makes while high could be life threatening and then would affect the people who care about the person who is hurt. Lastly, when you mention that cigarettes only hurt the person smoking, this is not true and that is why many places (including Michigan) have placed laws so one cannot smoke in restaurants and buildings because of second hand smoke. Ultimately, I think your point is right, but I can see how one would argue it.


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