“Prohibition…goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts
to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things
that are not crimes…A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles
upon which our government was founded.”
Two words strong enough to send
most conservatives into hallucinations of the crumbling of Western civilization
as we know it. The pin-striped prohibitionists dedicate their days to
telling you and I what we can and cannot put into our bodies.
This particular group of conservatives
is trapped by their own ideological inconsistencies. Mention gun control
and they go off about the danger of government encroachment into private
lives. Argue in favor of protecting wetlands, and you receive a lecture
on the glories of the marketplace. But drugs? All of a sudden the answer
is more government, more government, more government. The war on drugs
is nothing but a welfare program for police and government bureaucrats.
At the heart of the arguments
against drug legalization lies a paralyzing paternalism. Drugs are allegedly
bad for people, so the government will just take them away from the little
children citizens and put them on a shelf where they can’t reach them.
And if they do manage to get them, send ’em to their room for life.
Drugs are dangerous. So what!!!
A lot of things in life are
dangerous; the most intimate decisions individuals make are about acceptable
risks. Two of the most dangerous drugs known to humankind, tobacco and
alcohol, are permitted to compete in the marketplace even though the number
of documented deaths from the two puts crack and heroin into the minor
Society also permits individuals
to participate in a wide range of rather risky behaviors. People are allowed
to drive, own guns, eat high cholesterol foods, and listen to Michael
Bolton albums. In fact there is an inherent risk in just about every human
One major distinguishing feature
of a democracy is that individuals are allowed to decide for themselves
the amount of risk they are willing to accept. I consider hang gliding
a very high risk sport, for example, but realize that other people consider
it low-risk or are willing to put up with the high risk because of the
potential outcomes (when it comes down to it, we bet our lives against
positive outcomes all of the time).
The point is it’s your life
and your decision. If you are willing to accept the risks and consequences
of snorting cocaine, go for it.
It is not the government’s
role to act as surrogate parents protecting rational adults from the risks
A few caveats to the above
scenario are necessary.
First, the right of an individual
to determine acceptable risks ends at the point where another individual’s
rights begin. Snorting cocaine and then driving, for example, would not
be a morally defensible action. Unfortunately in the anti-drug hysteria
an attempt has been made to expand what it means to infringe upon the
rights of other individuals.
Harm here must be construed
narrowly. If someone gets high and then assaults another person, that
is a direct, tangible harm. If someone starts to ignore or even leaves
a spouse because of drug abuse, however, that is not a direct harm. An
intrinsic part of our social relations is that they are contingent and
subject to a variety of risks. The same individual might ignore his or
her spouse, for example, by becoming a compulsive overworker. Yet we don’t
have any laws which prevent someone from spending too many hours at the
And though this is a decidedly
non-consequentialist analysis of drug use, it is most certainly not evident
that drug use and/or crime would increase with legalization. As Doug Bandow,
senior fellow at the Cato Institute, notes, drugs were legal in the United
States until 1914. At that time the United States had fewer drug users
per capita than it does now, and the crime rate was significantly lower.
As Bandow wrote in the New
York Times, “The Government should focus its enforcement efforts
on protecting minors, while restricting only adult drug use that directly
endangers others. We should rely on education and social pressure to discourage
drug use. Indeed, they are bringing down alcohol and tobacco use without
a war, and it is education and social pressure that have done the most
to reduce illicit drug use.”
This column original appeared
in the Western Herald.