John Stuart Mill “Liberty and Marijuana”

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In a recent opinion piece Project Sam’s founder Kevin Sabet used John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to posit “Civil Liberties Erode When Drug Use Widens.”

“John Stuart Mill famously wrote:

‘… over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’ … ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’”

But Sabet only uses one part of the paragraph, which takes Mill’s meaning out of context.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.”

Sabet then writes,

“Since marijuana can cause addiction, forcing people to lose control over their own self and in the process inflict harms onto others; its use can decrease overall civil liberties. And since legalization would undoubtedly increase marijuana use in society, we might expect a reduction, not increase, in civil liberties if marijuana was legalized.”

John-Stuart-MillSabet’s logic is flawed. Mill, in writing On Liberty, focused on how  government wields power to exert their will on an individual. He followed in the tradition of political theorists who tried to define the proper role of government and its effect on personal liberties. Mill’s belief that the state can only restrict an individual’s liberty if it actually harms another is accurate, but what is missing from Sabet’s analysis is this: Sabet links marijuana use, instead of choices and actions by an individual, with why marijuana should remain in the realm of the criminal justice system.

Mill believed the mere potential for harm to others is not a valid reason for social control. The harm must be manifested into action that violates our responsibilities and obligations to society prior to government intervention. He famously used alcohol and opium prohibition as examples and defined the need for intervention only when there was a distinct breach of the law.

Sabet’s belief that marijuana use, rather than law enforcement’s actions prosecuting that use, necessarily results in the subversion of civil liberties would be laughable if not for his influence on the discourse surrounding marijuana and public policy.

I’m sure the more than 8 million Americans who have been arrested for a violation of our marijuana laws since 2001 would agree. The staggering costs to America cannot be measured by money alone, but by the lives ruined through government intrusion.

On Liberty is clearly a defense of individual liberty over the “tyranny of the majority.” Today, if Mill was alive he would rail against Sabet’s interpretation of his work. He would denounce the prohibition of marijuana as paternalistic, tyrannical and immoral.

Clearly the morality of the criminal justice system is questioned by the disparity in enforcement practices. By continuing the practice of enforcing drug laws which were initiated based on racism calls into question the very legitimacy of our government, and violates the fundamental rights and obligation of our government to all Americans.