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Many individuals intuitively feel that taking drugs of any sort is morally wrong, at least in the case of recreational usage. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that is true. It is still the case that drugs should not be illegal. We need to legalize drugs. Bear in mind, I do believe we have a problem with drugs. Any caring person who knows someone suffering from drug addiction will agree that there is a problem, but that does not mean the solution is to make drugs illegal.
Lying is morally wrong, but yet nobody advocates for outlawing lying. That’s because such a law would be difficult to enforce, there is no consensus on what kind of lies are wrong, and the consequences of jailing individuals for lying are worse than the consequences of the lies themselves. This is not to say that lying and drug use are equivalent, but rather it is useful for communicating the main idea behind the argument.
Anyone who thinks that the war on drugs has successfully eliminated drugs from the marketplace is living in a cave. 42% of Americans have used marijuana, and 16% have used cocaine in their lifetime; the United States has the highest use of illegal drugs on the planet (source). Drugs are available on the streets, in the schools, and even on the internet. With black-market sites on the dark-web similar to what Silk Road used to be, it doesn’t matter who or where you are, you can purchase nearly any kind of drug you desire. When Silk Road was shut down, several more black market sites just took its place. Ending the circulation of drugs is an impossible task.
Murder is something that every individual no matter their nationality, creed, or background, is able to recognize as wrong. Rape is another such crime. Theft is unquestionably wrong. But what about marijuana usage? That is definitely not something that is readily obvious. In fact, the majority of the population supports the legalization of marijuana (source). As far as hard drugs go, we often hear the phrase “my body, my choice.” There is a difference between what is unhealthy and what is immoral, and though most of the population can agree that drugs such as cocaine are not healthy, it is a stretch to say they believe it to be immoral. I’m not saying what’s right and wrong is based off of consensus; that is a view that commits one’s self to many different horrific conclusions. What I am saying is that laws declare some behaviors bad and others acceptable, and if we are going to legislate an activity as being bad, then it requires that people actually accept such a behavior as bad. The outlawing of drugs does not have such support.
Both the fact that banning drugs is ineffective, and that there is no consensus on it being immoral, are strong reasons for considering drug law reform (I’m not saying that is sufficient for legalization), however the crux of my argument lies here: the war on drugs has been absolutely devastating to people by punishing them for something that affects no one but themselves. The war on drugs is expensive, has destroyed families, and is ruins lives far more than the drugs themselves ever could. The war on drugs has cost over a trillion dollars (source), that’s more than the total GDP of several countries (source). It costs more than thirty thousand dollars a year to keep each incarcerated individual in jail (source), the United States incarcerates more individuals than any other nation (source), and a staggering 46.3% of prison inmates are in for drug offenses (source). Being incarcerated is devastating for an individual and their family. After release from prison, individuals struggle to rejoin the workforce (often causing behaviors that put them back in jail), and their economic mobility has been destroyed (source). This deeply effects the children, not just in terms of lower household income, but also the children are just short of six times more likely to drop out or be suspended/expelled from school (source). 54% of inmates have children (source), so this affects a lot of people. One of the biggest problems this causes, is the effects of fatherlessness. 92% of incarcerated parents are fathers (source). The following statistics are true of fatherless homes:
The children are 4 times greater risk of poverty, 7 times more likely to become pregnant as a teenager, more likely to have behavioral problems, more likely to face abuse and neglect, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, more likely to go to prison, more likely to commit crime, more likely to drop out of school, vastly more likely to commit suicide, and many more terrible consequences. (source)
Someone may try to counter and say that such an argument could be made about any crime, but the difference between drug offenses and crimes that are rightfully illegal, is that drugs are not an offense against anyone but the user. The immediate push-back on that statement from advocates of drug law, would be that drug users do damage others. They will cite both the tendencies of neglect for their children among drug addict parents, and the problems caused by legalizing marijuana in places like Colorado and Washington. A friend of mine, a strong advocate for the war on drugs, is a retired federal marshal who has time after time witnessed broken families from drug addiction. A study by Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area tracked a lot of the issues that arose in Colorado and Washington after they legalized marijuana. Some of these issues include increased traffic accidents by impaired drivers and teen marijuana-related school expulsion. So there seems to be a bit of a case against legalization, but lets examine these points closer.
One of the fundamental problems with this argument, is that it is placing the blame in the wrong areas. The issues do not lie with the drugs themselves, but rather with the decisions made by those using the drugs. It does not take a drug addict to neglect their children, it takes a bad parent to do such a thing. The marijuana did not cause traffic accidents in Colorado and Washington, it was the decisions made by individuals to get behind the wheel of the car when they are too impaired to drive. If you want to pass laws addressing that, harsher the punishment for driving while impaired. If you take away the licenses of individuals who get on the road impaired and put others at risk, then people will be far less inclined to do so. Aim the punishment where the crime actually lies, where individuals are hurting others.
Blaming drugs for these issues is like blaming cars for car accidents. If we were to legislate a total ban on cars, then we would save tens of thousands of lives every year. That is a significant amount of lives that could easily be saved if we just outlawed driving entirely, and limited transportation to public transit. Far more lives saved in that law than banning drugs. Society would still be able to function, as we would just start using buses and trains instead of cars. But why don’t we pass such a law, even though it would save lives? Well, its because freedom always comes at a price. We can always make people safer by taking away freedoms, but freedom is fundamental to human nature. We allow the dangers and costs of driving for the freedom to move efficiently.
To summarize my response to the objections, it is not the drugs themselves that cause the damaging behaviors of individuals, it is the poor decisions made by those individuals. Other crimes that are legitimately punished, all are intentional acts that directly cause a risk to other members of society. When others’ rights are being violated by an act, then such behavior should not be tolerated. Also, freedom always comes at a cost, and while it is true that there are more problems when individuals are using drugs vs a world in which no individuals use drugs, it is not the government’s job to tell us what we can do with our own bodies, when it’s not violating anyone else’s rights.
The facts cannot be escaped. The war on drugs has destroyed innumerable lives and cannot be won. The war is incredibly expensive, no matter our efforts to stop drug trade the supply will always exist (not to mention, making it illegal just offers protection from competition to large drug cartels), and we are ripping families apart. It needs to stop.
All this being said, as I mentioned in the beginning, drugs are a problem. I have talked with many people who are addicted to drugs, and often they began when they were in their teens, got addicted, and then it became a vicious cycle for them. They feel trapped by their addiction, unable to break free. They do not want to be in their situation. So, what am I getting at? I firmly believe that drug addicts don’t need punishment, they need help. If we treat drug addiction as a disorder, and help people accordingly, then we will see vastly different outcomes in society.
For the defender of drug laws, the burden of proof is on their shoulders to make a case that the government has a responsibility to tell us what we can and cannot put in our bodies. Not only that, but they have to make the argument in such a way that is not arbitrary and cannot be applied to the innumerable amount unhealthy/risky behaviors we want to allow.
Waging war on drugs is waging war on people. It’s time we help them, not fight them.