When Visiting Family, Do I Need To Tell Them About My Medical Marijuana?

It's an ethical quandary with no one right answer.

When Visiting Family, Do I Need To Tell Them About My Medical Marijuana?
Photo courtesy of Airbnb, inc.

Summer is a time for travel. Kids are out of school, most workplaces slow down, and the weather’s good. You could use the time to jet set around the world, stay in fancy hotels, eat exquisite cuisine, if you have the money. But most of us settle for trips to distant relatives and acquaintances, staying in their homes, enjoying home-cooked meals or take-out dinners.

Visiting family and friends during the summer is the simple, affordable solution to experiencing travel when you don’t have the money. You also kill two birds with one stone, by spending quality time with loved ones. What’s not to enjoy? But as a recent question showed in the New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column, this can present a moral conundrum of sorts when cannabis becomes involved.

As you know, marijuana remains federally illegal and classified as a Schedule I Drug. But cannabis is legalized for medical usage in 29 states, plus Washington D.C., and travelers still need their medicine. Is it morally wrong to bring medical marijuana into someone’s house without their explicit approval?

Here’s how the anonymous individual posed the question to the Times Ethicist:

I have developed a non-life-threatening medical condition that is incurable and has only limited conventional therapy. Symptoms appear at night with torturous pain. The physician-prescribed remedies are not working well. After reviewing online articles and discussion with one physician, I decided to try medical marijuana, which I take in pill form before bed. It has been marginally successful in providing some relief and allowing me to sleep. This is legal in my state, and I have gone through appropriate channels to purchase tablets at an approved dispensary.

I will be visiting a number of friends and family over the summer and have been invited to stay overnight with them—some in states that approve of medical marijuana, others not. Should I inform these people that I will be bringing this substance into their homes? Should I stay in a hotel? In some instances, I will be driving and can lock the drugs in the car, but I will be under their influence in the home at night. Also, if there are children in residence, am I obligated to disclose this information beforehand? The tablets are in childproof containers within childproof envelopes.

It’s a provocative question, one you could attack from multiple angles. You could internally convince yourself that, in fact, marijuana’s illegal status itself is ethically reprehensible. If this is a stance you believe, abiding by the law was itself an act ethical consequence. Of course that invites queries into your moral obligations as a citizen of any country to simply follow the laws set before you. However, we live in a democratic country where the citizenry guides its own governance and laws in principle.

So if you wanted to you could suggest that in not following the law you were fighting for true justice and acting on a higher ethical plane. However this is probably what serial killers think so maybe that’s not a great modality of thought.

The crux of the question at hand differs, though, because you’re introducing a friendly bystander into the decision. You’re enacting a whole slew of decisions with potential consequences without their input. If you were using for strictly recreational purposes, you might not be ethically wrong as suggested above, but you’d definitely be rude. You don’t sneak a bottle of Hennessy into someone’s house without alerting them, so why would you do so with marijuana?

However, you need your medicine to sleep and function. No one would raise an eyebrow if you brought medical prescriptions of Ambien or Percocet into their household. You likely wouldn’t even question yourself if it was the wrong thing to do, you’d just do it. In the eyes of the law and society, grass suggests more danger than pills. And the latter drugs induce a far more intense influence than marijuana!

Here’s what Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ethicist, had to say:

You need tell your hosts what you’re taking only if the presence of the drugs in their homes, or your behavior under their influence, exposes them to some risk. You surely pose no danger, and the childproof protections for the drugs suggest that children face no real risk of consuming them. Then there’s the theoretical legal risk in states where the possession of your medication is illegal. When it comes to those states, you could consult a lawyer and learn the nature of that risk or just tell your hosts what you’ve told me and let them make the judgment.

Appiah then kind of devolves the argument into a pretty boring conclusion about our duty to respect and follow laws. A radical thought this is not.

The real ethical question here is unaffected by what you’ve told your hosts. It’s raised by the simple fact of your breaking the law, including the federal law that forbids taking even small amounts of medical marijuana across state lines for your personal use. Some scholars argue that we have moral reason to obey the law only if compliance is independently the right course of action. For them, the answer would be: Go ahead. In my view, so long as a law isn’t seriously immoral, it has a general (if overridable) claim to our respect, even when it’s silly. It’s part of an overall scheme of cooperation from which we benefit, and we should do our fair share to sustain it. At the same time, what you’re proposing poses very little serious risk to the fabric of the law; if breaking it is wrong, it isn’t very wrong.

There isn’t a right answer here, which is why it’s an entertaining thought exercise. However, my stance is simple: If the individual above is using marijuana strictly as a medicine and take all the precautions they mention, they’re in the clear. You could tell your hosts if you want, but you don’t have to, so long as you remain cognizant and respectful how your drugged influence might affect those around you.

If you’re sneaking joints into someone’s place to get high late at night, I won’t necessarily fault you. But I couldn’t say you’re doing the right thing either.

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