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Of marijuana and morals

The Constitutional Court in South Africa has ruled  that adults found using, in private possession of, or cultivating dagga for their personal use will not be prosecuted. The ruling is a controversial one that has sparked reactions from all sides. For Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya the ConCourt decision leads him to consider the curious relationship that can exist between legality and morality. He is not much concerned with the particular ruling – his is a more philosophical investigation.

One does not need to be a biblical scholar to wonder why St Paul insisted on repeatedly making the same point to the same community.

“‘Freedom in everything’ [is the slogan]. Yes – but that doesn’t mean that I’ll surrender my freedom to anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

“Yes, ‘freedom in everything’; but not everything is profitable. ‘Freedom in everything but not everything builds up [the body].’ No one should be looking for their own interests, but for the interests of the other person.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Could it be that the community in Corinth suddenly had a long-time prohibition lifted and in their excitement they started trying out that which had until then been forbidden? They now had the ‘freedom’ or, as put in other translations, it was now ‘legal’?

The decision by the South African Constitutional Court to allow the recreational private use of dagga by adults brings to mind St Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians.

Smoking dagga is now permissible, but is it ‘beneficial’ or ‘profitable’? Could it be said to be for the good of the other person? The debate over what is right here is unlikely to be settled. There are strong views on both sides that are supported by science and anecdotal evidence.

It is certainly not the intention here for me to proffer my own views on the limited use of the now legal herb. I simply use this example, because it brought me to question my own views on a number of issues at the crossroad of legality and morality.

Dagga is really just a placeholder for many items in the catalogue of what is legal but whose benefit is controversial. Alcohol is another such example.

South Africans know well that something can be lawful without being moral or beneficial. Apartheid was perfectly legal.

It was unlawful for “Europeans” to have sexual intercourse or engage in “immoral or indecent acts” with anyone who was not “European”. The penalty for breaking this law was up to five years imprisonment for the guilty man and four years for the erring woman.

Attempts to overthrow the state, as Nelson Mandela did, were illegal and severely punished.

Too many justify their actions based on what is legal or lawful rather than on what is beneficial or just. Religious fundamentalism is also founded on such an argument. “The scriptures say so” is the favourite retort of those who cannot fathom faith as a living and therefore evolving tradition.

The ConCourt’s ruling provokes us to think more carefully about the reasons we give for limiting the rights and joys of others; whether in society, the Church or at home.

To simply say: “this is how it has always been” or “these are the laws as set out in our sacred texts” is not good enough. We must always read and interpret these within a particular context.

Our decisions to act one way or another need to consider more than our legal obligations. Our moral compass, and not simply the prohibitions which legal instruments may impose, should be our prime guide.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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