Students for Sensible Drug Policy is a national organization that supports a reexamination of drug laws and policies. We are neutral towards the use of drugs themselves; our concern is reducing or eliminating the laws that punish people for what should be a matter of personal choice. SSDP believes that the Drug War’s aims are misguided, its methods cruel, and its effects disastrous. Our position is based on a prejudice in favor of personal freedom: it is most in keeping with human dignity that all things be permissible unless a compelling argument can be made to forbid them. We believe that the burden of proof lies not with us, but with those who wish to keep drugs illegal; it is their job to explain why drug prohibition should be continued. By derailing some of the most common justifications for present drug policy, I hope to illustrate that the Drug War is destructive and wholly unjustified.
Poor Justification #1: Drugs are illegal, therefore drugs are bad. Drugs are bad, therefore drugs should be illegal.
This argument is clearly circular, but it is surprising how many people accept it in one form or another. Most people probably realize that critical examination of the law is essential for maintaining its integrity, and that even civil disobedience is sometimes appropriate. But most people also have a healthy respect for established institutions and legal traditions. The perverse and convoluted history of the war on drugs is difficult to condense, but the most important point is that the major illegal drugs were outlawed in the United States largely due to racism. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, many Americans despised anything associated with foreigners or nonwhites – remember, this was the same time period that saw the resurgence of such quaint American institutions as the Ku Klux Klan. Opium belonged to the Chinese, cocaine belonged to the blacks, and marijuana belonged to the Mexicans. To the average American, it was a foregone conclusion that the primary purpose of drugs was to inspire foreigners to amazing feats of violence, particularly the rape of white women. It may be convincing to a racist living in the 1920’s, but it should not hold up for a modern audience. Consequently, modern citizens should be at least a little bit embarrassed about the history of the Drug War, and should only look at its present ramifications, and not its past, to justify its existence.
Poor Justification #2: Drugs are immoral.
How so? Because they are habit-forming and diminish the work ethic? This doesn’t hold up, because alcohol acts the same way and is widely regarded as an acceptable vice. Because they isolate the user from reality? So do plays, films, and other generally accepted media. Incidentally, it has been argued that the purpose of religion is also to isolate the user from reality; somehow, very few of those who support drug prohibition on moral grounds also support the prohibition of religion!
It is, however, clearly immoral to persecute a group of people on the basis of your disapproval of their habits. That is the lesson that humanity was supposed to have taken away from the Spanish Inquisition. In order to show that drug prohibition is justified, we will need to demonstrate that drugs cause some unacceptable harm beyond their supposed immorality.
Poor Justification #3: Drugs are dangerous to the individual.
It is true that there are certain risks associated with the use of recreational drugs (even though the risks are often greatly exaggerated in the minds of the public). This is not a good basis for legislation in a free country. It is arrogant to assume that others are incapable of understanding the risks associated with drugs, or that they are too irresponsible to make good choices. Education about risks is entirely appropriate in a democracy; coercion is not. Preventing all people from using drugs because some people will become addicted is like censoring Camus because some people will find him too disturbing. No one will be shooting you with heroin against your will once drugs are legal.
If we were to accept the idea of paternalistic government intervention in drug use, then we might as well protect people from all kinds of potentially dangerous activities. Heart disease kills many more people than illegal drugs. Perhaps the government should arrest everyone who eats a hamburger, and put McDonald’s executives away for life. If our generation had been drilled to say no to cholesterol, then a War on Burger King would sound just as reasonable as the War on Drugs.
Ironically, drugs become much more dangerous to the user once they are made illegal. For example, the natives of South America have chewed the stimulating coca leaf for many centuries with few ill effects. Thanks to the Drug War, bulky coca leaves are not profitable to ship to customers on other continents but potent processed cocaine is. Additionally, most overdose deaths are due to disparities in purity. Obviously it is difficult to have consistent purity when buying from extralegal sources; the best way to prevent overdose deaths is to legalize.
Poor Justification #4: Drugs are dangerous to society.
It is questionable whether the health “of society” should ever become more important than the freedom and happiness of the individuals that make up society. If I were to say, “Drugs should be banned because they cost society X million dollars a year in lost productivity,” some readers might be inclined to agree. But if I were to assert that we should outlaw poets for the same reason, I imagine there would be many objections. Fundamentally, these two proposals are the same – both are abhorrent to our conception of liberty and choice. I submit that we must leave people to the pursuit of happiness, whatever it costs, so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others – no one has an obligation to be a cog in the machine just to make sure that society gets its money’s worth out of him.
Regardless of one’s philosophy on societal obligations, the Drug War has caused more damage to society than drugs ever could. Suffering takes on a much more sinister aspect when brought about not by acts of God or an innocent chemical substance but by men acting out a fanatical and misguided fantasy of justice. A generation has been raised to think of themselves as criminals, since the government has declared War on the over one hundred million Americans who have tried illegal drugs. Law enforcement has been corrupted by drug money as well as placed in a state of perpetual conflict with the people it is supposed to protect. The legitimacy of the government’s ability to give law has been undermined by its insistence on enforcing laws that are unjust. As far as cold cash is concerned, billions of dollars of public money are wasted each year on the drug war, with the cost increasing every year. The criminal justice system has expanded enormously, with more than half of all federal prisoners incarcerated on drug charges.
More disturbingly, racism has again been institutionalized in the form of mandatory sentencing minimums that disproportionately affect minorities. Although whites make up the majority of drug users, only 23% of those imprisoned for drug crimes are white. Thanks largely to the Drug War, one third of all black men between 20 and 29 are under the supervision or control of the justice system.
Poor Justification #5: When people use drugs, it presents a danger to others.
Most people have heard the urban legend of the babysitter on LSD who cooked the baby, thinking it was a turkey. That sort of story, though false, inspires a sort of visceral fear; a person out of his mind, on drugs or otherwise, is a scary thought. But being scary does not equate to being dangerous; unless people staring at their hands and writing poetry really alarm you, you probably have nothing to fear from the august acid freak community. In the real world, very few drugs genuinely inspire people to be violent, and these not to any greater extent than alcohol. When you wake up on Sunday morning and find that someone smashed your bicycle on the way back from Prospect, you can be fairly certain that he was under the influence of a perfectly legal substance.
Poor Justification #6: The drug trade supports murderous cartels and terrorists.
Nicotine is as addictive as cocaine, but we seldom see cigarette barons gunning people down in the streets or terrorist cells selling tobacco plants for rocket launcher money. The prices of illegal drugs are grossly inflated because only a small number of organizations will accept the risks needed to produce them. If cocaine were legal, buying it would support friendly local coca farmers instead of the Shining Path – terrorists would not profit by selling cocaine for eighty dollars a gram if people could buy it for a tenth the price at a drug store or Wal-Mart. When drugs are legalized, organized crime will most likely collapse. The great American gangsters did not endure long after the repeal of Prohibition.
Poor Justification #7: Drugs cause crime and poverty and ruin lives.
The Drug War causes crime and poverty and ruins lives. With drugs illegal, users are stigmatized, rightfully unwilling to cooperate with authorities and less scrupulous about breaking other laws. More importantly, as noted earlier, drugs are only expensive because of the very fact that they are illegal, and their cost creates most of the social ills associated with their distribution and use. Before drugs like opiates and cocaine were restricted, many thousands of respectable people became addicted but continued their lives more or less successfully, because they were not forced to become criminals to take care of their addiction. (Freud extolled the virtues of cocaine, Pope Leo XIII endorsed cocaine-infused wine, and Robert Louis Stephenson purportedly wrote the entirety of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while on a cocaine binge. All of these individuals would be persecuted under today’s laws.) There are millions of nicotine addicts in America today, but they don’t make the news much because they seldom have to rob stores to afford cigarettes.
Ultimately, the Drug War is one of the worst human rights disasters in history. In few instances have so many people been subjected to so much misery with so little justification. You will have some inkling of the human dimension of drug prohibition if you take a moment to imagine your brother, your father, or your own person sent away for years to a dark and hopeless place, all in the name of keeping people safe from their own desire for happiness. It is a scene that belongs in Iran or medieval Spain, not twenty-first century America. It is not a partisan issue, despite what some may think; concerned citizens across the political spectrum with a passion for justice and reasoned judgment are realizing that the Drug War is flat-out bad policy. And remember, no great injustice has ever been corrected without a lot of brave people taking action.