17 April 2017
For Legalizing Hard Drugs
Legalize Hard Drugs: American Freedom at Work
April 3, 2017
It’s clear that marijuana should be legalized. The more interesting issue is whether other drugs such as ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, and heroin should be legalized.
Consider the following background. The U.S. locks up an incredibly large number of people. It has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Writing in The Washington’s Post, Michelle Ye Hee Lee notes that the U.S. incarcerates 478 per 100,000 people. In contrast, other countries incarcerate far fewer. Consider, for example, Australia (130 per 100,000) Canada (188), Japan (51), and across Europe (134). What makes this fact so horrifying is that the victimization rate in Western Europe is roughly the same as it is in the U.S. The U.S. has been turned into a lockdown nation due to a variety of “get tough” laws that include truth in sentencing laws, mandatory minimums, mandatory drug sentences, life sentence without possibility of parole, three-strikes laws, and so on.
Roughly 3% of the adult population is under the control of the criminal justice system (incarceration, parole, or probation) at any one point in time and this population churns, constantly sweeping new people into its gaping maw. Some populations are especially likely to be swept in. Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, The Sentencing Project notes that for U.S. residents born in 2001, roughly one in three black men and one in six Latino men will be imprisoned at some time in their lives.
Drug laws are one of the causes of this ocean of incarceration. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of two federal prisoners and one out of six of state prisoners are there for drug-based offenses. In 2015, roughly half a million people were incarcerated for drugs. This number has exploded from the mere 41,000 who in 1980 were incarcerated for drugs. Most inmates currently locked up for drugs were neither high level dealers nor had prior criminal records for violent offenses.
Why think that buying and selling drugs should not be punished or, at very least, should not be incarcerated?
First, there is the argument from rights. People consent to government to protect their natural rights and rights derived from them. One person’s natural right is a claim against a second that the second not interfere with the first’s use and enjoyment of his body or property. Among the natural right a person has is the right to put whatever she wants into her body, whether it is unpasteurized milk, another woman’s finger, tattoo ink, alcohol, or drugs. When people consent to the American government’s authority, they have not waived this right. This can be seen via the text and structure of the Constitution as well as the assumptions made by those who wrote and ratified it. People thus retain the right to use drugs for the same reason they have the right to engage in sodomy, it is a natural right that has not been waived.
Second, there is an argument from the many benefits of freedom. According to Heritage Foundation, economic freedom correlates with per capita income. Other studies show economic and personal freedom robustly correlate with happiness. The best interpretation of these studies is that increased freedom makes people wealthier and happier. Drug prohibition lessens freedom directly, by trampling on a natural right, and indirectly, by the many ways the governments trample on people’s rights against search and seizure in the pursuit of drugs. The recent atrocities in the Philippines being a case in point.
One objection to these arguments is that hard drugs are just too dangerous to legalize. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that in 2015, 52,000 people died from drug overdose, including 13,000 from heroin.
One reason to be skeptical of this argument is that these tragic deaths occurred under a brutal and unforgiving system. This tragedy is then used to argue that we should make the system even more brutal and unforgiving. Perhaps we should try legalization accompanied by education campaigns and more opportunities for treatment. We did this for alcohol.
Our freedom should not depend on whether undisciplined yahoos can handle it. For example, the U.S. protects the Westboro Baptist Church’s freedom to picket military funerals and people’s right to buy Everclear’s 191 proof grain alcohol regardless of whether either is a good idea.
In addition, it is unclear whether the cost of drug use outweighs its benefit. While the tragic death of thousands is bad, the pleasure that people millions get from drugs is good. People drink alcohol because they enjoy it. That pleasure would be lost were alcohol again prohibited. Similarly, drug use would generate more pleasure than it currently does were drugs no longer prohibited. For example, some friends tell me that ecstasy is more fun than Jack Daniels.
A second objection is that drug use is not part of American freedom because people get addicted and addicted people are unfree.
If this objection were true, this would be a good reason to prohibit alcohol and cigarettes, but it’s not. Not every drug user gets addicted. Consider those who dropped acid in Vietnam or at Woodstock. More importantly, freedom includes the right to engage in risky activities when such activities do not wrong others. For example, the government allows allow adults to drop out of school, become uneducated-and-unwed mothers, and waste their money on cult-like religions (for example, Scientology) even when doing so risks poverty, indignity, and a loss of control.
A third objection is that hard drugs should be prohibited in order to keep them from children and teens.
The problem is that this argument has no logical stopping point. The same is true for alcohol, cigarettes, pornography, premarital sex, and MMA fighting. You can’t have a free society if the laws are designed to make the world perfectly safe for 13-year-old girls.
As the first step in eliminating the lockdown nation, drugs should be legalized or, at the very least, not punished via incarceration.