On legality and morality

The popular reaction to Elon’s puff of a marijuana spliff I referred to in yesterday’s post got me thinking about legality vs. morality.

Some people find it disturbing that the CEO of a public company would smoke weed, which isn’t even illegal in the state in which he smoked it, but used to be illegal there last year.

There’s no practical justification for this feeling — it just feels icky to many that a business and cultural leader would ingest an up-to-recently illegal substance.

I think the issue is that people tend to confound the concepts of legality and morality, which to me, are distinct and only loosely correlated. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a similar sentiment in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail:

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

While laws are generally guided by moral principles, there are so many exceptions that we really need to keep these concepts separate. Drug policy is probably the easiest example to point to.

Marijuana was never illegal because it’s bad for individuals or society, it was made and kept illegal for racial, political, and economic reasons (look it up). The same goes for cocaine, and I’ve been watching in real-time as the FDA gears up to schedule kratom — ironically, in the midst of an opioid epidemic that it can credibly help solve.

Call me crazy, but I think civil liberties should only be infringed when there’s credible evidence that permitting them causes individual or societal harm. If we set the bar any lower, our laws will be dictated by the quiet and powerful forces of political and economic special interests, rather than that gentle and timeless force we call morality.

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