Sanjana Mehta  – University of Calgary / Tavleen Kaur Salujab- O.P. Jindal Global University   : Viewing Cannabis Through The Utilitarian Lens 

Viewing Cannabis Through The Utilitarian Lens 

Sanjana Mehta 

Orcid ID – 0000-0003-1745-7632 

University of Calgary 


Tavleen Kaur Saluja 

Orcid ID – 0009-0008-2249-5899 

O.P. Jindal Global University 

The authors declare no conflict of interest


This paper delves into the philosophical debate on marijuana legalization, through utilitarian perspectives. Prohibitionists argue for societal well-being through deterrence and preserving values, while legalization proponents, mainly utilitarians, highlight individual happiness, economic gains, and medical benefits. Applying utilitarian principles to India, the paper suggests that regulated legalization could bring economic advantages, job creation, and improved medical access. The current legal framework’s inadequacy in deterrence and disproportionate punishments is acknowledged. In conclusion, carefully regulated marijuana legalization aligns with utilitarian principles, offering a potential solution to societal challenges associated with marijuana use in a concise and balanced manner.

Table of Contents 

  1. Introduction 
  2. The Prohibitionist’s Argument III. The Pro-Legalisation Stance IV. What Would Benthem Do?
  3. Introduction 

At its very core, the dilemma over marijuana legalization is to a great extent, philosophical. Drug usage, for the longest time, has been blamed for the uprising of any sort of social evils including unemployment and unproductivity, violence – especially domestic violence, and in extreme cases, even grave criminal offenses. However, these moral evils have existed in our society for a long time. One of the most basic presumptions of morality is that we can only be morally accountable for what we can control, however, not everyone has the same ability to regulate life’s situations and circumstances.1 This presents an essential philosophical challenge when considering public policy in areas like drugs: when is it legitimate for the state to restrict and penalize certain types of behavior? 2 

Recreational marijuana is often seen as generally harmless, according to studies, and is seen as a rite of passage that normally ends when young people settle into employment and mature romantic relationships Now, what are utilitarian’s thoughts on this? There is no “simple fact” for them about whether or not drug usage is wrong.3 Rather, the moral argument must address the complicated question of whether drug use causes or prevents happiness.4 So, according to the utilitarians, the greatest pleasure principle governs morality; moral activity is defined as that which improves the overall quantity of benefit in the world.5 

  1. The Prohibitionist’s Argument 

The prohibitionist’s argument against legalization rests largely on harm reduction through inaccessibility. They argue that legalization may cause increased drug use, and cite its potential impact on society. That is to say, it would harm society, while prohibition, whereas in preventing drug use and by extension its consequences utility falls in creating happiness. 

For prohibition to stand true to the utilitarian principle, it must act as a deterrent. The Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002 6in defending prohibition stated ‘The Law works. The fact that drugs are illegal deters people from misuse and limits experimentation.’ While making this representation it cited a report by MORI where 30% of the participants cited prohibition as the reason for not consuming drugs. 

1 Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck” (1979).

2 Katherine Curry, “In Pursuit of Higher Pleasures: The Moral Value of Criminalizing Drug Users and the Utilitarian Case for Decriminalization” (2019). 

3 Jeremy Bentham, Collected Works: The Utilitarian Approach (1843) 


5 “Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism: Should Marijuana Be Legal In The UK?” <>. 

6 House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee (2002) The Government’s Drug Policy: Is it Working? (The Government’s reply to the Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee Session 2001- 2002), HC 318, Cm 5573 5. 

It also draws from the principles of traditional conservatism. Prohibitionists argue that the government has a duty to enforce the majority’s values. And while the population largely stands against drug use, prohibition maintains those values. 

Prohibitionists argue that the potentially increased drug use should it be legalized would cause irreversible damage to society, causing an increase in health and behavioral problems. Prohibitionists argue that in harming themselves users decrease their value addition to society as family members, employees, and samaritans. They also argue that the detrimental effects on health caused by drug use also impose increased and avoidable healthcare costs. Drug use has been linked to crime and in doing that drug use crosses the boundary of self-harm into the realm of harm to society at large.7It is also noted that prohibition increases the price of drugs and in doing so reduces the demand and consequently use. Maintaining prohibition is argued to bear the best consequences for the welfare of society.8 Prohibition thus employs four mechanisms: availability, deterrence, price, and denunciation to reduce drug use and its effects on not only the users but also the society.9 

III. The Pro-Legalisation Stance 

The pro-legalization sect argues differently. The biggest benefit of marijuana is the pleasure it provides.10 This truth is practically never discussed in public debate; people appear to believe that pleasure has no bearing on morality.11 Utilitarians, on the other hand, disagree, for them, the only question is whether marijuana makes people happier or not.12 Furthermore, utilitarians reject the concept of “bad joys”, if something makes you feel wonderful, it probably is, at least to some level.13 Cannabis legalization would also make individuals happy by giving them more control over their drug use, as drug regulations are strict and limit people’s general freedom. 

Legalizing marijuana in the United States would save around $7.7 billion in annual compliance expenses and produce between $2.4 and $6.2 billion in tax income, depending on whether marijuana is taxed at the same rate as alcohol and tobacco, the substances which are a lot more socially acceptable than marijuana.14 This generated income can in turn be spent on public reform policies that would benefit society as a whole. In addition to the economic argument, proponents of marijuana legalization point to the substance’s practical medical applications as a 

7 The organisation Liberty, in its evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee (Liberty, 2001), argued that recreational drug use was primarily self-harming, causing limited harm to others.8 E. James Q Wilson, Against the legalization of drugs in H. LaFolleme (nd) en Pr (Osdord, Blackwell), 1997 9 Paul Smith, “Drugs, Morality and the Law” (2002) (Journal of Applied Philosophy Vol. 19, No. 3) 10 Dr. Yuna Kim, Dr. Shaun P. Young, “The Cannabis Act: A Utilitarian Compromise” (2018) 11 Jeremy Bentham, Collected Works: The Utilitarian Approach (1843) 

12 Ibid. 

13 Ibid Note 7. 

14 Ibid Note 7. 

compelling reason to end the prohibition, particularly for medical purposes. The utilitarians believe that the government has a “duty to facilitate” medical marijuana research and use in circumstances where it has been scientifically demonstrated to have clinical advantages.15 Another truth is that states that have legalized medicinal marijuana have witnessed a large decrease in the number of prescribed medications with a high potential for abuse.16 

  1. What Would Benthem Do? 

Having taken into account the arguments for prohibition and legalization, it is also important to analyze them in the Indian context. To follow this debate, from a utilitarian point of view, we must compare the potential happiness and risks to determine which course of action would provide the maximum utility to the maximum people. 

A major roadblock to decriminalization has been deterrence. Prohibition will be justified if it works in deterrence, according to Bentham’s views on deterrence and punishment.17 Bentham’s theory of punishment, with the goal of ensuring that punishment is proportional to the harm caused by a crime and adequate to prevent others from committing the same crime.18In compliance with his ideas then we must analyze this problem on two fronts. Firstly, is the punishment proportional to the mischief? Secondly, whether it is effective in deterrence. 

In, the matter of proportionality, we present, A comprehensive study conducted by the Social Justice Ministry, that investigated the ‘magnitude of substance use in India’, in the study of cannabis abuse was found to be ‘rather modest.’19 The study found that at the national level, only 0.25% of the people who consumed cannabis were dependent. This a rather modest number when compared to legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, in which dependency rates are 18%20 and 65%21respectively. It has been claimed that cannabis is beneficial in the treatment of some medical conditions and that legalizing it would bring in cash and create jobs.22 Cannabis 

15 “The Ethics of Marijuana Legalisation” (2016) 


16 Ibid. 

17 Bean, Philip. Legalising Drugs: Debates and Dilemmas. United Kingdom: Policy Press, 2010. 18Crimmins JE, “Jeremy Bentham” (Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyJanuary 28, 2019) <> accessed November 17, 2021 

19 20Ambekar A, Agrawal A, Rao R, Mishra AK, Khandelwal SK, Chadda RK on behalf of the group of investigators for the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India (2019). Magnitude of Substance Use in India. New Delhi: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India 

21 Chandra PS and others, “Prevalence and Correlates of Tobacco Use and Nicotine Dependence among Psychiatric Patients in India” (2005) 30 Addictive Behaviors 1290. 

22 “What Are the Health Benefits and Risks of Cannabis?” (Medical News Today) 

&lt;; accessed November 17, 2021 

has been prescribed in Ayurveda for ages in India.23 24 However, once the drug laws were enacted, this was eliminated. The first Medical Cannabis Clinic in India was established in 2020.25 His clinic not only offers medicinal marijuana but also does extensive studies on the subject. As a result, the sale of medicinal cannabis in India based on research not only assures effective treatment but also provides jobs and cash. Further, having access to alternative medicine greatly aids and unburdens the medical system. 

Legalisation also ensures quality control and prevents the circulation of adulterated and harmful substances in the market. Further, distribution through legal channels would ensure greater regulation. This would also give the State more power to curb recreational use by regulating rates, while medical use can be subsidized to ensure justified and safe use. 

Legalization of cannabis would thus open reliable channels of access to the people who wish to use it and allow us to create a better framework of support and rehabilitation for the smaller section who abuse it. Further, the revenue generated from the industry would result in the opportunity to create better support frameworks by employing rehabilitation centers to support those who are abusing it. Moreover, the funds generated could be a source of funding, to employ more and better qualified systems to tackle the abuse issue. This would also generate employment. 

Despite the proven advantages, economic, medical, and recreational and the relatively low risks involved in consumption. The Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Drugs Act of 1985 punishes those who make, possess, sell, transport, import/export psychotropic substances, including cannabis, with at least one year in prison and/or a fine, which may be up to 20 years depending on the amount.26According to data, the NDPS Act resulted in the arrest of 78,006 persons in 2017.27People were detained for personal possession and usage in 46835 cases (roughly 60%). This is made worse by the fact that, according to NCRB figures, jails are at 115.1 percent 

23 “I.CANNA.BLOG” (I.CANNA.BLOG – Cannabis from the perspective of Indian Traditional Medicine, Ayurveda) < da> accessed November 17, 2021

24 More recently notable institutions like Harvard, MEDLINE and several others have also researched the medical uses of marijuana. 

25 26The Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Drugs Act of 1985 

27 10309201654/ 

occupancy.28 Legalising marijuana would unburden the prison systems which will then not have to house people arrested for meager possession. 

Further, in the matter of deterrence, a study conducted by AIIMS, 29 showed that despite stricter regulation the consumption of cannabis has increased in the last two decades. This goes to show that prohibition has not been an effective deterrence against its use. It cited a study conducted by Reddy and Chandrashekhar in 1998,30 contrasting it to show how use of cannabis has increased from an earlier 0.69% to now 35.7%. Although the paper considers the unreliability of this data on the grounds of heterogeneity of the studies and sample size, geographical variations, and state variations. 

The aforementioned data, clearly shows that our current systems are inept at dealing with the issue at hand. Neither have they been successful at deterrence, nor is the punishment proportional to the mischief. Further, evidence suggests that legalizing cannabis can potentially benefit a large portion of the population in many ways. As Benthem himself noted in his accounts “Thus, almost all utilitarians favor the legalization of marijuana.” 

After careful consideration of all the risks and benefits, we believe that cannabis, if regulated with force, has the potential to greatly benefit the population in many ways. Medical use of marijuana has already proven to have great benefits. Besides that, recreational use carries very little risk. By legalizing marijuana, we create happiness in the populace ridden with medical ailments that cannabis has proven to aid with, we also reduce the burden on the legal system by reducing the number of people prosecuted for meager possession. While harm reduction might still be a concern, legislation would allow greater regulation and a more rehabilitative approach toward abuse. Further, it is estimated that 60% of districts in India cultivate marijuana.31 Considering the quantum of production, the potential tax revenue generated from the industry heavily tips the balance towards legalization with strict regulation on use and restriction on abuse. 

28 7.html


30 Reddy VM, Chandrashekar CR. Prevalence of mental and behavioral disorders in India: a meta-analysis. India J Psychiatry. 1998;40:149-57. 


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