Not High; Still Mighty

Exclusive to STR

November 15, 2007

Consider this:

"The strong feelings that people have about drugs are undoubtedly derived to some extent from people's concerns about the health issues that drugs give rise to, and'probably even more'from the connections that undoubtedly exist between drugs and crime. cannot understand the emotionally charged atmosphere in which the debate about drugs takes place unless one appreciates the extent to which drugs are seen as a peculiarly moral issue and unless one further appreciates the extent to which, and the ways in which, both drugs and the users of drugs have been demonized"

-RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy, (32-33)

With this statement in mind, let's take a shot at appreciating the moralistic argument in favor of drug prohibition. The health risks posed by drugs, and purported links between drugs and crime, still pose challenges to advocates of legalization. But by the end of this article, it will hopefully become clear that prohibition can't be justified on moral grounds. First, we'll discuss the reasons for believing that drug use is immoral. Then, for the sake of argument, we'll concede the argument that drug use is immoral, and discuss whether or not morality ought to be a factor in forming laws.

So why is drug use so morally awful? There are two reasons commonly offered by prohibitionists. First, drug use allegedly represents an attempt to escape from reality through the alteration of one's consciousness, and this is wrong. Second, drug use supposedly destroys one's sense of responsibility, morality, and self control, thereby making one a worse person.

Some proponents of legalization argue that these allegations are untrue, and that the moralistic argument is based on an unfair prejudice about drug use. To refute the first point, that drug users are trying to escape from reality, some put the medical uses for various drugs on display, while others, like Dr. Lester Hunt, call attention to the fact that ''some psychoactive drugs, both licit and illicit, can be taken in ways that seem to enhance mental functioning and are often used for precisely that reason.' In other words, drug use should not be banned on the grounds that it represents an escapist mentality, because it is often the case that drug use represents nothing of the sort.

Similarly, objectors to the argument that drug use destroys lives, like the authors at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, point out:

A range of studies from the Netherlands, where the social use of cannabis in 'coffee houses' is tolerated, suggests that many adult cannabis users work out for themselves precisely when, where, how much and how often they can use cannabis so that it does not dislocate their daily routines. Cocaine use too can be controlled within a secure social setting. What keeps many heavy users from falling into abuse is their personal stake in conventional life: jobs, families, friends, and so forth. Where the lives of cocaine users begin to come apart, the problem may in the end be found to be with their lives rather than with the cocaine (69).

Put simply, drug use should not be banned for causing people to become worthless, irresponsible, immoral people, because it often causes nothing of the sort. Together, these replies attempt to demonstrate that drug use is not immoral because drugs can be used responsibly, and without aiming at inebriation.

But few people would dispute the observation that sometimes, drug use does represent escapism. And sometimes, drug use helps to coax people down a slippery slope of self-abasement. Though it would a small victory if prohibitionists acknowledged that responsible, non-intoxicating drug use poses no moral dilemma, questioning the truth of prohibitionist claims falls short where clear cases of 'drug-induced immorality' can be found. Unfortunately, arguing that these moral judgments are invalid is a lost cause.

A more fruitful line of defense is exemplified by Dr. Thomas Szasz, who writes, 'The right to do X does not mean that doing X is morally meritorious. We have a right to divorce our spouse, vote for a politician we know nothing about, eat until we are obese, or squander our money on lottery tickets.' In other words, prohibition is unjustified because society is not the arbiter of morality. If the morality of drug use is irrelevant, then the moralistic argument crumbles.

But although the argument against legislating morality is intuitive to many people, some may still maintain that society has the right to impose morality upon its members. Confronted by Szasz' argument, they might resort to the stance that drug use is somehow more immoral than Szasz' examples, and should be prohibited, while those other activities, though objectionable, ought to be tolerated. Confronted by examples of arguably worse, but legal, immoralities (infidelity, lying, etc.), the prohibitionist might advocate legislation over them all.

How to respond to such an argument? In many ways, it represents everything that America stands against. Our country prides itself in recognizing that people have the inalienable right pursue their own happiness in whatever way they choose, without having to worry about what other people think. As long as no one is hurting anyone, the American ideal would seem to preach tolerance.

But in the end, there is only one observation that can thoroughly defeat moralistic legislation: morality is something that comes from within. It is not a pattern of outward behavior; it's a set of values and principles which guide one to live well. If people are forced not to do drugs, they will not be doing so out of an improved sense of morality, but rather out of a lack of choices. People will be no more moral than before. Depriving people of choices could even hinder their moral development. Morality is about learning to make the right decisions on one's own, not being forced to do what others think is right. Thus the best argument against legal moralism is not that morality shouldn't be forced upon people, but rather that it can't.

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Danny Shahar's picture
Columns on STR: 9

Danny Shahar is an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education.  He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to begin work on a PhD in philosophy in the Fall of 2009.  Danny's research generally falls within the fields of ethical, political, and economic philosophy.  He writes a blog called Back to the Drawing Board.