What Ails the Drug Debate
I believe that all drugs should be legal. Not some drugs, all drugs. Not decriminalized (where the authorities don’t prosecute for certain low-level offenses), fully legalized (and regulated and taxed). As society inches toward the acceptance of cannabis and begins looking into medicinal applications of some other substances, it’s easy to feel optimistic about the trajectory we seem to be on. But the tone of the drug debate is less encouraging. Safetyism — the belief in the primacy of safety to the virtual exclusion of other considerations — is ascendant in society. A culture saturated with safetyist thought and attitudes, as we have seen, has a little bit of compatibility with the project of scaling back the War on Drugs. The driving rhetorical force behind the acceptance of marijuana is an argument from safety — that we know marijuana is mostly safe, has medicinal uses, and is less dangerous for health than other substances which are already legal (and which proved disastrous when we tried banning them). Similar arguments of therapeutic applications are starting to be more widely made of various hallucinogens. Arguments from safety are also used against the War on Drugs — namely that its enforcement is racist, unduly punitive, and causes more harm than it prevents.
Every mainstream current on both sides of the drug debate seems to hinge on arguments about safety and harm. Conspicuously absent is any mention of freedom. Libertarians are the only ones talking much about freedom these days (at least with any semblance of sincerity), and they are a politically impotent bloc. This is a problem. If you agree with the growing number of people who think the War on Drugs has been a disaster and must be ended, it’s time to reconcile that goal with the fact that safetyism cannot achieve it. The politics of drugs is much more than a matter of safety and harm reduction. Safetyism, properly harnessed and channeled, can get a few of the less harmful drugs eventually legalized, maybe decriminalize a few more in time. But that doesn’t end the War on Drugs, it merely nibbles at the edges. Safetyism can never lead to full, across-the-board legalization. A renaissance of appreciation for freedom and liberty can.
What right is more fundamental than an individual’s choice to guide their own consciousness? If we are not free to peacefully experience certain mental states, if we are denied jurisdiction over our own minds, then every other so-called right and freedom we have is little more than a charade. What goes on inside our skulls is the last refuge from even the most abject tyranny, the inner sanctum of personhood and autonomy. It’s not for nothing that the most horrifying dystopian masterpieces are those in which even this final bulwark is breached. This space is ours, and a respect for freedom and liberty must conclude that it should be considered sacred and inviolable, including our right to alter it as we see fit.
None of this is to say that considerations of safety or harm have no place. They do. The criteria by which we should evaluate when to limit freedom is when a certain freedom might harm others. For this reason, people should not be allowed to take substances that impair judgement in public, while operating motor vehicles or heavy machinery, or while pregnant, when the consequences might harm others. But in the privacy of one's home, or some other safe environment, adults altering their own consciousness is a victimless act — it affects only the user.
One objection is to cite that many drugs are dangerous, and that they should be banned to protect people even from harming themselves. Following this reasoning to its logical conclusions, we should also be in favor of banning unhealthy foods. After all, most of the top causes of death, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and many cancers are diet-related, not to mention chronic conditions. Ten times more people die of heart disease alone in the US than die of drug overdose. We can extend this logic to banning alcohol, tobacco products, fireplaces, contact sports, thrill-seeking hobbies, or anything potentially addictive. We can ban motorcycles and mandate a 30 mph speed limits on all highways. These measures would all make us safer. But they would also make us less free. And there is no philosophically defensible argument that there is any intrinsic difference between the case of drugs or that of any other kind of danger. If we abandon the principle of limiting individual freedom only in cases when it can harm others, then we have no basis upon which to protect any freedom to engage in a risky but victimless activity.
What about indirect harm? The case might also be made that there is no such thing as a victimless act — that we are all connected, and so even getting high in the solitude of one's own home is detrimental, because that's time one isn't spending contributing to society. For instance, it might be argued that someone with a family is harming them when they spend time getting high that might have been spent with their children. This reasoning runs us into the same problems. We can say the same thing about the person spending their Saturdays watching cartoons and eating Cheetos rather than volunteering at the local soup kitchen, or about a parent who spends time at the bar that might have been spent at home. But we recognize that this is not and can never be an argument in favor of throwing cartoon watchers or alcohol drinkers in prison, or in forcing them to turn to the black market to obtain these things. Can drugs be used irresponsibly? Of course. Can people spend money on drugs that they should be saving, or spending elsewhere? Absolutely. Can drugs potentially take away from important things people should be doing? Yes. Can they be used in a way that indirectly harms others by this use of time? Sure. But so can everything. It is true, technically, that we are all interconnected to the point that virtually nothing we do is without consequence to others, on some level. However, any society that followed this reasoning to its logical conclusions would produce a miserable hellhole none would desire to live in — a society where our lives would be micromanaged to excruciating extremes. A line must be drawn somewhere, and the sensible place to do so is with direct harm to others.
Who are we to dictate what victimless vices or recreational activities warrant incarceration, criminal records, legal penalties, or involuntary detainment and treatment? By what criteria do we determine this? How is frequent alcohol consumption less worthy of these penalties than occasional ecstasy use? How is cocaine more worthy of this treatment than gambling? What makes running a palm oil company a less harmful enterprise than growing magic mushrooms? How is the person who smokes a joint after work more dysfunctional than the drug-free but unemployed person playing video games for fifteen hours a day? Without well-reasoned and consistent first principles to guide the decisions we collectively make, we will not only make fools of ourselves, we will limit freedom and liberty, and harm innocent people in the name of preventing harm.
Reframing How We View Drugs
The issue isn’t just that the War on Drugs causes more harm than it prevents. Nor that drugs are solely destructive vices to be tolerated out of a principled respect for individual liberty — they can be useful even beyond medicinal/therapeutic applications. It obviously depends on the drug, the person, the dosage, the frequency, and so forth, but drugs can, for some people, open their minds to new ways of thinking, and they have helped facilitate a tremendous amount of creativity, art, insight, and spiritual epiphany. It happens not to be in my nature to burn the candle at both ends. Other people are different, and their eventual burnout need not always been seen as a tragedy or shame, not if they harnessed their twin flames toward productive, creative, or meaningful ends. And many do. For many others, drugs cause nothing but addiction, pain, and dysfunction. Results may vary.
If you want my personal advice: I would not generally recommend someone take drugs. But neither can I pretend that they are a scourge with no upsides. Not everyone is wired to be a cautious, longevity-maximizing planner. And we all benefit from the many brilliant people who burned too brightly and flared out too soon, or those who experimented with positive results. We are moved by their music, poetry, literature, and art, and our minds are expanded by their ideas and insights into life, nature, and the human condition. And while some of these people may have been just as brilliant clean, many may not have contributed the same level of greatness to humanity unaided by consciousness-altering substances. That said, it seems safe to say that for every person who’s benefitted in some way from drug use, there are likely many more who have enjoyed only superficial pleasures that were ultimately engulfed by catastrophe. Everything in life is a risk, and everything has a price. You may find the price of drugs too high for yourself, and there may be many who make the purchase on credit only to soon find themselves underwater. But let's not pretend that the purchase can never buy anything of value. More importantly, let’s not pretend we have any moral authority to make this choice for others.
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