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Cannabis Philosophy for Everyone Edited by Dale Jacquette

Book Review

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Updated September 12, 2011

Cannabis Philosophy for Everyone Edited by Dale Jacquette

Book Cover of "Cannabis: Philosophy for Everyone"

Image © iStockphoto.com / Cover Design and Image Montage by Simon Levy / Wiley-Blackwell
The philosophy of cannabis is a somewhat humorous take on a timely subject, and this collection of writings certainly gives a variety of perspectives on a culturally relevant issue. However, I do feel the tone is rather flippant -- through trivializing cannabis use, it potentially weakens the very real concerns that the recent growth in marijuana use and move towards legalization raises.

An Exploration of the Cannabis Intoxication Experience

If you are interested in reading about what it feels like to get high on marijuana, this is the book for you. The authors share their experiences, and those of previous writers on the subject, including the "flow" experience, distinctions between "buzz," "high," and "stoned," and the concept of inner space.

This aspect of the book would be helpful if it satisfied the curiosity of potential users. But if anything, it runs the risk of making the process of getting high more fascinating than it actually is. And although set and setting are acknowledged as playing a key role in the experience, the experiences described are those that reflect a quite narrow social context of positive drug experiences.

It is inevitable that middle class, comfortable, self-satisfied intellectuals would reflect similar characteristics in their experiences of cannabis effects. These perspectives dominate the literature and common discourse on cannabis. Yet I do feel that the voices of other cannabis users -- those that predominate the drug treatment community, for example, are, as usual, stifled and ignored.

For example, in Chapter 13, "Smoking Pot Doesnt Hurt Anyone But Me!" Musselman et al analyze whether cannabis is harmful to a middle-aged, happily married, middle class gentleman, who limits his use to a weekend smoke with friends. Not only does he quickly dismiss any real harm that this may have, but he ignores that fact that, even if it was harmless to him, it might cause very real problems for someone without his considerable social advantages.

Parallels With Alcohol

A pet peeve of mine is that people writing about addictive behaviors fall back on the plethora of knowledge that exists about alcohol. This is forgivable when writing about intoxication or substance use in general, but not when writing about a specific addictive behavior that is distinct from alcohol, in this case, cannabis use. I had the same complaint about Susan Cheever's reflections on sex addiction in Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction.

Alcohol intoxication has very specific effects that are not necessarily shared with other addictions. Also, there are a great number of social forces at work in the acceptance of alcohol and rejection of cannabis in mainstream society, that are not necessarily positive or in the public interest. Ultimately, the main reason that alcohol abuse is tolerated is because the prohibition of alcohol during the last century was such a dismal failure -- but this does not negate the many problems that widespread alcohol abuse causes.

So a line of argument that says, alcohol is socially acceptable, alcohol is more harmful than cannabis, therefore cannabis should be accepted, doesn't deal with the real challenges of managing either alcohol or drug problems in society. One of the main reasons that Proposition 19 was unsuccessful was that the State of California was not ready to legalize pot overnight. As I argued at the time, many details still need to be worked out to prevent a great deal of harm occurring as a result of overnight decriminalization.

Emphasis on Whether Cannabis Use is Right and Wrong

An overarching theme of the book is the idea that the decision that someone makes when they choose to use or decline to use cannabis is a moral one. And the sense I get is that, despite all the lip service being paid to "philosophy" and "academic and scientific reports," the collection of perspectives have been carefully constructed to support the idea that using cannabis, or at least having the freedom to use cannabis, is right, and not wrong.

What is difficult for me about this is not that I fundamentally disagree with the pro-legalization viewpoint -- decriminalization of marijuana has been effective in some jurisdictions, and in many cases, criminalization of drug users has been extremely harmful -- but I do disagree with presenting a biased viewpoint as if it is a debate.

I have listened to a lot of marijuana users and ex-users, and although almost all expressed regrets about their drug use and behavior, I don't recall a single one of them stating that marijuana use was immoral. Illegal, yes; immoral, no. Lying and stealing might be wrong, but smoking a joint, at worst, was an unhealthy way of avoiding facing up to oneself. So I find all the pontificating about whether or not cannabis use is immoral to be a bit of a moot point for cannabis users.

The point about cannabis use not being immoral in and of itself is perhaps most relevant to those who are in a position to consider the information in policy and law-making. However, this book is clearly not targeted at that market, and I don't think they would take this book very seriously.

An Important Text on an Important Debate

Although I have some concerns about the arguments presented, and the way in which they are presented, I think these criticisms are all over-ridden by the importance of opening up the cannabis issue for debate. Many interesting dimensions of cannabis research are reflected in this book, which is written in an intelligent and entertaining style. And I cannot deny that some of my criticisms are applicable to pretty much any writing about drugs and addiction, including my own -- an unbiased piece of writing on this issue is rare indeed.

I also feel that the writers are coming from a very well-meaning place, albeit a somewhat naive one. I cannot deny or diminish the harms done by drugs, including cannabis, because I have seen the damage it has done to people's lives. But I would agree with the authors in that these harms mainly affect a troubled minority of users -- where we part company is my belief that these individuals should be our greatest, not our least concern in making drug policy and law.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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