Watch out for the anti-legalization arguments...there's some bad stuff floating around

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 1999

The purpose of a war, in my mind at least, is to win battles with the ultimate goal of defeating your opponent.

Yet after the spraying of pesticides on drug crops in third world nations, armed troops patrolling the borders of nations, interdictions, the infringing of individual rights thanks to search and seizure laws, the incarceration of millions of people, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, it is no more difficult for one to buy illegal drugs today then it was ten years ago. It's probably easier since back then everybody was worried that it was inevitable they would be we know better.

I am of course referring to the war on drugs funded and fought by nations across the world and the prohibition against buying, selling and using them. A campaign that has seen many battles "won," but little in the way of victory assured.

Thanks to the drug-fueled turmoil of inner cities, the continuing ease that they can be obtained by anyone almost anywhere and a debate about liberty, a growing number of people are calling for a re-thinking on drug policy. National Review founder William F. Buckley is not the first and only prominent member of the conservatism movement to call for legalization of illegal drugs, performing that feat repeatedly in his newspaper columns and in the NR itself, but it does prove that some heavyweights have come to the conclusion that the current policy of prohibition is a clear failure and must be replaced with a more rational one.

Thanks to the war on drugs, nearly 700 000 people were arrested in the United States for possession of marijuana in 1997, while 400 000 currently sit in prison for drug crimes -- more than the entire prison population of Britain, Germany and Belgium -- for what is a consensual act. Nearly $35 billion a year is spent on arresting, prosecuting and jailing drug criminals in the U.S. -- $400 million in Canada -- to hammer at a crime which essentially harms no one but the drug user.

Two views of drugs:

Marijuana never kicks down your door in the middle of the night. Marijuana never locks up sick and dying people, does not suppress medical research, does not peek in bedroom windows. Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.
- Richard Cowan, former director of NORML

We're in a war. People who blast some pot on a casual basis are guilty of treason.
- Daryl Gates, former Los Angeles Police Chief

It is a war on drugs which, as Richard Cowan, former director of the pro-legalization group NORML, forces the sick and dying to live out the last days of their lives living in excruciating pain, stops legitimate medical research and interferes in the civil liberties of all people, whether they use illegal drugs or not.

There are two basic groups opposed to legalization, those wrong about the facts and those who don't care about the facts. The first are characterized by poor assumptions, while the second fight against liberty itself.

Critics argue that illegal drugs can be deadly, and it's been proven that they can bring a host of problems. But as for being deadly, the figures clearly prove otherwise. While the numbers vary -- with cannabis considered as having never been responsible for a death to heroin which takes about 1.5 per cent of its user's lives -- deaths due to drug use is rare.

A trickier, but no less flawed argument involves the social costs of drug use. Critics argue that whether to use drugs should not be an individual's choice alone because it may do harm to others. There isn't much doubt that harm the drug user does to themselves may cause anguish among family members and friends. They may addict themselves to drugs and social bonds may be strained as the person degenerates. And so, this thought has it, society is justified in banning drugs to prevent this "harm to others."

But people constantly engage in any number of activities that, like drug use, only endanger themselves physically, but threatens to cause emotional harm to others if they die or are seriously injured: whether it's skiing or driving on highways at night. Using that argument, any action whatever could be banned. It would mean the end of freedom.

For those wise enough to skip that argument, the pitfall of addiction looms. It is true that people can addict themselves on both a psychological and physical level, but no more so than tobacco, alcohol or even chocolate, proving that addiction is hardly a strong criterion. And do remember: drugs do not cause the addiction, but the person does. There are addictive users, but no addictive drugs.

The danger isn't from those who've made the honest mistakes in the debate, but those who frame the debate in moral language. In 1994, Rep. Gerald Solomon of New York declared in the House of Representatives the use of drugs is "an anathema to the social and moral fabric of our nation" while Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Thomas Constantine stated in a 1996 guide on how to argue against legalization that "[t]he moral fiber of our country would be torn apart."

The morality police can even get hysterical, with then-president of the California Narcotic Officers' Association Richard M. Sloan writing in his 1994 opus The Myths of Drug Legalization, that "it could lead to the downfall of the United States as we know it," presumably from listening to Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit too often.

But are Sloan, Solomon and Constantine really arguing against a change in the moral fibre and center of a nation, with a rational fear of Haight Ashbury refugees taking over every city, or are they arguing for something else, a philosophic belief more appropriate in the Middle Ages?

If the use of drugs is an anathema, as Solomon claimed, that would make them evil, that is, something with no redeeming value to society and only capable of causing harm. A drug itself, Solomon is all but saying, is a moral character to it. But drugs aren't a human being and can take no moral position. Solomon's position is the equivalent of a medieval priest ascribing demonic power to some object in the faint hope of ending a drought.

What opponents of drug legalization are arguing is that drugs are intrinsically evil and should be banned for that reason alone. What they fail to see is that whether something is good or evil can only be determined by how something is used and to what end: context. Something cannot be intrinsically evil in of itself, but only in relation to a person in a specific context.

Politicians in the west used to be guided by John Stuart Mill's assertion that "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." Liberal democracies like Canada and the United States were formed on this amazing principle.

The fact of the matter is that drugs are not deadly all of its users. Drugs are also not addictive to all of its users. These two salient points add up to the inescapable conclusion that drugs are not intrinsically evil. If you accept that drugs aren't intrinsically evil, it then raises the question: Are drugs of any value?

The vigor of the drug trade and the seemingly endless parade of purchasers who are risking jail time and even death suggests that they are of value to someone. What do they value about drugs? Are their reasons valid? Free men aren't obliged to answer to you for their personal choices, but if you asked their reasons politely they might tell you.

All the actions taken by governments since the turn of the century against drugs has been wasted because the war was based on a false idea: that drugs are intrinsically evil. Enough people are willing to take extreme risks for something that they value. Enough people are willing to go outside of the law to obtain a product that they value. Despite the spraying, armed troops, incarceration, repressive laws, and incredible amounts of money spent, drugs can be values and to many people they are values.

Steven Martinovich is the editor-in-chief of Enter Stage Right. He can be reached at

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