In recent years, there has been a significant amount of debate as to whether or not the possession and usage of marijuana should be legalized. Several issues revolve around this topic, not the least of which are the perceived and actual effects of this particular narcotic in a psychological, physical, economic, and even social sense. Perhaps one of the best methods for determining a prudent choice of action regarding this subject would be to consider it from an ethical perspective, or even better, from two ethical perspectives with traditionally conflict in order to properly gauge which stance would ultimately be more beneficial to marijuana users and the general public at large. The primary purpose of ethics is always to establish and preserve some moral good, and two ethical perspectives which can not be considered synonymous and which have a considerable amount of practical application to the debate over the legalization of marijuana include utilitarianism and relativism. However, thorough deconstruction of these ethical theories effectively proves that the legalization of marijuana can be supported by both utilitarianism and relativist thought.
In terms of ethics, the traditional problem which supporters for the prohibition of marijuana have successfully utilized to keep it illegal and not readily available for public consumption or possession is the fact that it is considered a drug, which can affect people on myriad levels in terms of cognition and physiology. One of the very definitions of the term "drugs" is that they are substances which ultimately alter the natural state of a particular subject, whether mentally or physically. Marijuana, of course, has the potential to do both -- to considerably change the realms of cognition in terms of perception and even in terms of thought patterns and intensity, which may them be acted upon by the physical body in several ways which may be judged unpredictable and unnatural to a person who was not under the influence of this particular narcotic. Such an efficacious substance, marijuana prohibitionists claim, cannot be controlled and can cause a wide range of undetermined effects which may be potentially noxious, so the substance should be outlawed.
Were this viewpoint the only one about this controversial substance, there would be no need for an ethical dilemma in the first place. Proponents for the legalization of marijuana, however, regularly contend that there are myriad amounts of boons associated with its possession and use. Marijuana has been known to produce curative effects in the human body and can considerably ameliorate the effects and even the sensation of pain. It has also been noted to rectify certain symptoms of glaucoma and has other benefits when properly utilized for medical purposes. Additionally, there are a variety of constructive uses for hemp, the very plant which engenders the drug, which have nothing to do with its ingestion. Hemp can be used as a source of paper, and can also be used to construct clothing, accessories, and other substances of value in contemporary society. This last argument, however, leads into one of the most often-cited arguments prescribed by pro-legalization supporters, which is namely the fact that the real value in legalizing this narcotic is in its monetary value. Were marijuana legal it could be grown safely by virtually anyone with a mind and aptitude for harvesting, which would institute a market for the purchase, import and export of this substance as a valuable cash crop. All of these effects, of course, are decidedly positive and keep pro-marijuana advocacy groups clamoring for its legalization.
Utilitarianism is the ethical point-of-view pioneered by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham which always seeks to establish the greatest amount of good achieved by the outcome of a particular action to determine its morality (Mill, 1999, p. 32). If there is more good than harm produced by such an action, then it is therefore supported as being ethical. In this regard, utilitarianism is decidedly objective in its scope and focus. It strives to determine the greatest amount of good produced by a course of action, what its philosophers, particularly Bentham, championed as the principle of the greatest felicity. However, there is a comprehensive aspect of utilitarianism which is essential to its definition as well as to its application to the debate regarding the legalization of marijuana, as is evidenced by the following quotation. "It is impossible to look at one action and tell whether or not it maximizes the "most happiness." Instead, all possible alternatives must be compared in order to see how much happiness and unhappiness each produces and hence which one results in the most overall happiness. Also, utilitarians must measure the various happiness and unhappiness that follow from each alternative. It is not enough to observe that three people receive happiness from action A while eight people receive happiness from action B. A utilitarian wants to know how much (and even for Mill, what kind of) happiness each of those persons gets (Parks, Wilke, 2010, p. 9)."
Therefore, when utilitarianism thought is applied to the issue of the legalization of marijuana, utilitarians would consider all of the previously mentioned arguments to validate the amount of happiness and unhappiness produced by each. There is a degree of subjectivity to this process, since happiness is not a quality which is readily quantifiable and ergo easily compared. Yet what it definitely valid about the degree of felicity produced by the aforementioned arguments can primarily be found in the viewpoints of those in favor of legalization. There is little question of the good produced by marijuana, especially in terms of its constructive uses for paper, clothing, and accessories, all of which can be produced at home and sold for profit were this substance legalized. This benefit is a concrete fact which cannot be disputed. The same is true for the deployment of marijuana throughout healthcare facilities and for its medicinal purposes; there is significant documentation of its curative effects on glaucoma and usage to reduce pain in chronically debilitating conditions. The minimization of pain and disease would certainly add to a greater amount of pleasure for potentially millions of patients who suffer from a variety of afflictions.
Marijuana's legalization could also decrease the amount of monetary resources used to procure it, which would also help such patients. And lastly, the means of economic security, of providing sustenance and a source of income to several minions who would have little more overhead cost than that of sunshine (or of bright lights), water, and budded seeds to produce a crop which they could sell and potentially live and eat off of, would also be achieved if marijuana were legalized. The ramifications for this final consideration are fairly staggering; with such a readily available source of pecuniary empowerment, poverty, hunger, even possibly homelessness, could all be eliminated by the changing of one piece of legislation.
The good or happiness produced by these confirmed facts -- that marijuana induces positive medical effects, can be used for construction, and can also be used as a means of income -- would almost certainly outweigh the unhappiness, or even the happiness, brought about by the conventional arguments which are used to keep this substance illegal. The potential danger which marijuana's effects on the psyche and body are suspected of producing are just that, hypothetical, suspected premonitions, perhaps, which have yet to be founded upon truth. There have been very few links between marijuana and violence, or any other sort of criminal behavior which warrants its prohibition -- such notions are merely worst-case scenarios which may happen, or which could happen. Meanwhile, the aforementioned positive results of marijuana championed by legalization supporters are fully confirmed facts for which their good can be readily evinced merely from stating their arguments. In this regard, utilitarianism would certainly seem to favor a confirmed happiness over a dubitable unhappiness which has yet to be validated.
The primary contrast between utilitarianism and relativism lies in the very nature of their concerns in regards to ethics. Utilitarianism is principally concerned with the greatest use or happiness produced by an action. The primary preoccupation of relativism, however, is with the concept of truth. Relativist theory holds that there is no single, defining absolute truth or even truths, and that all matters are relative and truth merely the perspective produced by a mitigating, frequently fluctuating series of circumstances that are fleeting at best. Relativist thought represents the acme of subjectivity and adheres to the notion that what is considered the truth for one may very well not apply for another. Furthermore, it should be noted that relativism is not so much a specific branch of ethical consideration (the way utilitarianism undeniably is), but is an actual conception of the sense of value or degree of validation which ethics and morals have in general, as the following quotation greatly implies. "Relativism is not a single doctrine but a family of views whose common theme is that some central aspect of experience, thought, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something…