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.
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?
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.
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.
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.