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America’s irrational drug policies

Ten students and two visitors at Wesleyan University were hospitalized after overdosing on the recreational drug Ecstasy, the result of having received a “bad batch.” The incident elicited a conventional statement from the President of the University: “Please, please stay away from illegal substances – the use of which can put you in extreme danger.” But the drug is so widespread that warnings of this sort sound fatuous. A more realistic approach, adopted in many university settings, would be to provide a testing booth where students can check the purity of their Ecstasy supply.

Drug overdoses are certainly a serious danger. Fortunately, the twelve people involved in the incident survived, but, as we all know, there have been many premature fatalities. In recent years, these have included a number people who enriched our lives, such as 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 illegal drugs, and they do. But they also reveal the dangers of the legislation that makes narcotics and related drugs illegal.

Mind-altering substances, from Ecstasy, to LSD, to heroin and cocaine aren’t good for your body, but they aren’t lethal. They kill only 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 Tylenol 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.

Image credit: ‘Drugs’. Photo by Almond Butterscotch, CC by-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

The reason for our anti-drug 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 anti-drug 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 shun such expedients.

It is certainly true that a person who is heavily dependent on a mind-altering drug 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 drug policies is the survival 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 Colombia 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 an 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 credit: ‘Pills’. Photo by epSos.de, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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