Harris Wittels, stand-up comedian, author, writer, and producer for Parks and Recreation — and generally a person who could make us laugh in these seemingly grim times — died of a drug overdose at the age of thirty. He joins the list of people who brought pleasure to our lives but died prematurely in this manner: Corey Monteith, Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Janis Joplin, and Chris Farley, among others. Moralists will point out that these untimely deaths reveal the danger of narcotics, and they do, but they also reveal the dangers of our anti-narcotics legislation.
Heroin and cocaine aren’t good for your body, but they aren’t lethal drugs. They are only lethal when they are taken in excessive amounts, which generally occurs because they are sold on the street, without adequate control of quality or dose amounts. Many legal substances, including acetaminophen and sleeping pills, can kill you if taken in improper dosages. But few people die from them — unless they are trying to commit suicide — since they are marketed by reputable companies in carefully controlled and labelled form. These companies can’t market narcotics, however, because our policy is that selling or taking these substances is a serious criminal offense.
The reason for our narcotic laws, according to their proponents, is that we are trying to protect people from themselves. But declaring people criminals and putting them in prison seems like a peculiar way to protect them. Conviction and imprisonment are designed to punish, that is, to inflict harm. In practical terms, a conviction often ruins one’s career and prison often ruins one’s life. Another claim is that narcotics laws protect those dependent on the users, such as their partners or children. But even if a person inflicts indirect harm on his or her dependents by using drugs — failing to keep a job for example — it seems unlikely that those dependents are better off if the person is taken to prison and deprived of an entire career. As for using criminal punishment to deter others from undesirable behavior, our society allows the use of only blameworthy persons for this purpose. We might deter poor performance in school by imprisoning children who consistently get failing grades, but we tend to avoid such expedients.
It is certainly true that a person who is addicted to narcotics is likely to lead a sub-optimal existence. But we generally don’t declare people criminals for failing to achieve their full potential. Addicts are not the walking dead; they can have stable and productive lives, at least if they are not hounded and oppressed by the criminal justice system. Perhaps, had they not been opium addicts, William Wilberforce would have succeeded in abolishing slavery in the British Empire ten years earlier, Samuel Coleridge would have written more poetry (although he might not have written “Kubla Khan”), and Wilkie Collins would have developed another new genre besides detective fiction. Perhaps Sigmund Freud would have plumbed further recesses of the human mind if he hadn’t been a cocaine addict, and the Beatles would have stayed together and produced another fifteen albums if they hadn’t taken hallucinogens. But all these heavy drug-users contributed to our society, and the people listed above didn’t do so poorly either.
The real reason why we maintain our irrational narcotic policies is the survival of pre-modern morality, which can be described as a morality of higher purposes. According to that morality, people are supposed to serve the state and the society by contributing to the economic order. The defining feature of the substances that have been criminalized — which are after all quite different in their chemistry and their effects — is that they produce enjoyable experiences. This leads to concern that people will spend too much of their lives in a drug-induced haze instead of reporting to work in the office, the factory, and the toll booth.
But these laws are ineffective, they are cruel, they are phenomenally expensive. They corrupt the police, and they unleash savage criminal cartels on our democratic allies such as Columbia and Mexico. We need to distance ourselves from the old morality of higher purposes and embrace the newly developing morality of mental health and human self-fulfillment. For a fraction of the money that we spend in our hyper-aggressive, inhumane War on Drugs, we could provide treatment for everyone who wanted to escape from addiction. This would be a much better way to control the drug problem. And it would be nice to have Harris Wittels, Corey Monteith, Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Janis Joplin, and Chris Farley still with us to enrich our lives.
Featured image: Cocaine by sammisreachers. CC0 via Pixabay.