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A moral argument against the war on drugs

By Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy 

Former Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has argued that the war on drugs has failed and cannabis should be decriminalised. He argued that the hardline approach has brought “disastrous” consequences for Latin America. Having just returned from Rio, one can only agree. One of us was staying with an eminent professor of philosophy. We were returning to her house with her 11 year old daughter, only to have our way blocked by police with machine guns. They were hunting a drug lord in the local favela – this road was the only escape route and they were preparing for possible altercation.

Cardoso highlights the practical failure of a zero-tolerance approach. A zero tolerance approach to a crime like taking drugs must always fail, in the same way as a zero-tolerance approach to alcohol, prostitution or drugs in sport will always fail. Paradoxically, the worst thing you could do to the drug lords in Rio is not to wage a war on them, but to decriminalise cocaine and marijuana. They would be out of business in one day. Supplies could be monitored, controlled and regulated – the harm to users and third parties significantly reduced.

The case for legalizing drugs has been made often, most recently by Cardoso and by Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, who this week co-signed a report declaring that ‘the war on drugs has failed’. The argument is nearly always put forward in terms of the burdens that the drug war has imposed on us in terms of crime and public health. And it is true that these things give us good reason to abandon Nixon’s war on drugs. But we so rarely hear a moral argument in favour of liberalizing drug laws. This is a mistake. Although experts have told us time and time again that things would be better without the drug war, politicians have ignored the expert advice because voters do not want drugs laws to be loosened. And voters feel this way not because they think they know better than the experts, but because they have moral objections to drug use. There is a hidden moral debate driving the war on drugs that we never seem to bring out in the open.

The original drug prohibitions had a moral rationale rather than a practical one. It began with the American prohibition of opium, which was primarily motivated by a moral objection to white people smoking in Chinese-run opium dens. This began a prohibition movement in the United States. In 1913, marijuana —which was used almost exclusively by Mexican and Indian immigrants — was prohibited for the first time by the state of California.

Today, when new drugs are added to the long list of illegal substances, it is because they are judged to be “addictive”, not because they are harmful. The United States’ Controlled Substances Act calls for a drug to be prohibited ‘a high potential for abuse’ and if it ‘may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence’. The drug does not have to be harmful in any other sense. According to US government statistics, paracetamol (acetaminophen) is involved in nearly five times as many emergency room visits as MDMA, and it remains available in supermarkets around the world.

So the main reason that drugs like alcohol and caffeine are legal, but cocaine and MDMA are not, is that the latter are judged to be “addictive”. (Suspend for a moment the true belief that alcohol and caffeine are addictive.) Addiction does harm the addict, to be sure. But self-harm cannot provide grounds for prohibiting a substance. As Mill famously put it, the sole legitimate reason for interfering with a person’s liberty is when he risks harming others. And while it is sometimes argued that the ‘drug problem’ makes us all worse off, most of these harms flow directly from the zero-tolerance approach — drug prohibitions harm others when they are robbed, beaten or killed by those who run the black market of drugs.

It is sometimes argued by liberal-minded people that addictions warrant state interference because they render the addict incompetent, powerless to make an autonomous decision to take drugs. The addict becomes like a child in need of parental protection — or in this case the protection of the state. In this way ‘addiction’ becomes a moral concept, not a form of harm. It is a condition that robs us of our moral status.

We have argued in a number of articles  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) that such a view of addiction is false. People who take drugs are not suffering from a disease and they do not necessarily have some pathological failing of will power. They may be imprudent or irrational in taking drugs, but then again, we all are, nearly every day, in various ways when we eat unhealthily, engage in risky sports, smoke, drink or gamble. Addicts may place to greater value on pleasure, or on excitement, or escape from reality, but their addictions are not different in kind to desires for other pleasurable activities. People become “addicted” to gambling, videogames, internet use, exercise, sex, carrots, sugar and water. These substances or activities do not “hijack” the brain — they provide pleasure utilising the same brain pathways as drugs.

Every pleasurable activity is ‘addictive’.

The public discourse on drugs includes liberty, health, and crime, but it so rarely includes the value of pleasure. We do not have to be hedonists to believe that pleasure is one of the important goods in a person’s life. A liberal society should be neutral with regard to which pleasures people may pursue; it should not force people to conform to a particular conception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pleasures. But more importantly, if every pleasurable behaviour can be addictive, then there can be no reason to believe that the pleasures of drug use are less important than the pleasures of good food and wine, of rock-climbing and football, or of browsing the internet. Each of these things is pleasurable, and hence each is addictive, and each can be harmful if done to excess. But we all have a right to pursue the pleasures we find valuable, even though each of these pleasures puts us at risk of addictions or addiction-like problems: alcoholism, pathological internet use, sex addiction, binge eating disorder, and so on.

The right to pursue pleasure gives us reason to legalize drugs, while addiction and self-harm fail to give us good reason to prohibit them. That is the essence of a strong moral argument against the war on drugs.

There remains one possible ground for interfering in liberty and retaining the ban on drugs. That ground is the public interest. If society were to be severely impaired by liberalisation of drug laws, that might be an extreme case that warrants a ban on drugs. But our (admittedly limited) experience suggests the opposite — the Netherlands appears to have reduced its drug problem, without increasing its overall rate of drug use, by enacting relatively liberal drug laws for ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana. And as Cardoso argues, a complete ban seems to be strongly against the public interest, keeping drug lords in business and the user and others in a position of severe vulnerability.

In the future, perhaps we will give up our squeamishness about drugs which provide pleasure. We could use modern pharmacological science to select or even design drugs which give us the pleasure or experiences we seek, but cheaply and without serious acute or chronic health risks. For the present, the drug which we can most freely obtain is one of the most addictive, one which contributes to violent behaviour, one which produces terrible chronic health effects and the worst withdrawal syndrome of all drugs. Alcohol.

The time has come to take a rational approach to drugs.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you for writing on this topic that I believe is so relevant! The right to pursue pleasure is one important aspect of a moral analysis of the drug war. But while I support drug legalization, I think there is a much more immediate moral issue than simply the fact that drugs are illegal. It is how we punish offenders and enforce the law that causes the most human suffering and is the greatest ethical violation, in my opinion. Not all people are banned from pursuing pleasure, if you are white and middle or upper class, than you’ll probably never have a run in with the law for your drug use. But if you’re black and live in an urban area, you’ll likely be put in prison for a long time even if your careful.

    The Netherlands hasn’t legalized drugs, but their methods of enforcement are dramatically different. For me, the moral outrage is putting someone in prison for decades because they have a small amount of a substance on them. Incarceration for a victimless crime is a bigger moral outrage than the lack of a legal right to seek pleasure via drugs. The drug war, as we know, has rarely stopped those who seek pleasure through drugs.

  2. What about public welfare? Legalized drugs, increases risks like intoxicated driving which costs non-drug users lives. Also I’m worried about practical effects of drug legalization. E.g. In legalizing marijuana for recreational use, we might simply tax it out of the price range for those who want to use it for medicinal purposes.

    1. Wayne, how can we say legalizing drugs would increase intoxicated driving? I can’t think of a society with cars that has ever lived under anything besides drug prohibition. Alcohol is legal and intoxicated driving is a major problem, but I think most historians agree that the overall public health and public disturbance issues associated with alcohol were worse under alcohol prohibition. On your second point, the prices of marijuana would fall so much in a legalized market that even with high taxes it would be less expensive than it is in the black market.

      But since you bring up public welfare, what about the public’s right to be free from a violent and costly drug war? Does the public have a right to safe cities that aren’t populated by dangerous drug gangs?

      1. We don’t need to live in a society that has completely legalized all drugs to understand that the legalization of drug use increases drug use. Those who are undeterred by the law would continue to use, obviously, once its legalized. But there are those who would not engage in drug use, because its illegal. Lift the prohibition, and these people would use drugs. So legalization will almost always guarantee an increase in drug use. The question is by how much. That I don’t know, and probably won’t know until we actually do it.

        I’ll admit that there is loss of public welfare with drug gangs and the like. But we can rather easily quantify this: In 2009 about 10k people died of DUI in the US. In the span between 2006-2011, 34,000 people died in Mexico to the drug war. That averages about 8,400 a year. (I couldn’t find a 2009 statistic for better comparison). Now I also know I’m comparing alcohol to other kinds of drugs, and there isn’t any solid statistics about how often people drive while high on marijuana, for example, than alcohol. Also it might be the case that driving while high on marijuana would lead to fewer auto accidents than those driving drunk.

        In California, medicinal marijuana is legal, so the price is already low, so the choice isn’t between the black market, and recreational legalization prices, the choice is between medical legalization and recreation prices. I think its pretty reasonable to say its more important to keep prices low for people utilizing marijuana medicinally, than to make a buck off of people who are using it recreationally. Honestly, I think that is my primary concern about the legalization of marijuana, at least here in California, that medical users would be priced out of being able to afford their medicine.

        I don’t think there is anything morally wrong with recreational drug use, but I think there might be practical concerns that we should consider before legalization.

        1. Legalization might increase use to an extent. But this blog post pointed out how it is morally questionable whether the state has the right to tell people they can’t engage in recreational drug use. I think the question is if the state is justified to protect individuals from themselves by prohibiting potentially harmful behavior. Or if on the other hand we should seek a regulated market with safe guards requiring drug distributers to engage in ethical practices and ensure users are provided with the necessary information and resources to minimize the harms of their drug use. Being treated as a criminal presents some obvious obstacles for drug abusers who need help. I also doubt that there are many people who don’t use heroin or meth because they are illegal, the vast majority of the public has bigger reasons than that…

          As someone who works in California’s medical marijuana industry, I think your economics are questionable. The medical industry is semi-legal, meaning growers are still subject to a lot of risk and operate under very restricted manufacturing guidelines. More risk (from federal raids), and less competition (because you have to jump through a lot of hoops to grow and sell to dispensaries) means higher prices. If Prop 19 to legalize in CA was passed in 2010, prices would have dropped. There would have been more competition, less risk, and therefore lower prices. Many medical dispensaries were not in support of Prop 19 because of this. A more valid argument defending medical users might be that the quality of medicine would drop because it would be grown on a mass scale if legalized. But considering how this industry is made up of cannabis connoisseurs who are passionate about the horticulture involved in creating better and better strains, I doubt access to quality medicine would be greatly effected by legalization.

      2. “But since you bring up public welfare, what about the public’s right to be free from a violent and costly drug war? Does the public have a right to safe cities that aren’t populated by dangerous drug gangs?”
        You make the assumption that criminals base their activity entirely on the trade of illicit substances. While it is true that the prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th cen. made the fortunes of many an organized crime boss, there will always be a criminal element seeking to make profit off any type of good (or service), including goods that are entirely legal to the general public, yet are found in the circulation of black markets and other such “underworld” routes of trade.

  3. Alan O. Rivera Leal

    Es interesante el ver los polos de cada situacion, y creo que ya las respuestas quedan a consideracion de cada persona

  4. I respect the validity of both sides of this argument, however, I find it questionable that the authors feel that every “right to pleasure” is entirely equal. while, yes, one may argue for the addicting nature of pleasures, how can you equal the addiction to running or creative writing to even a ‘soft’ drug like cannabis. While the cannabis may have benefits in its medicinal usage, it must be then held that its benefits are restricted to that usage, for at what point to benefits to health transition into harm? And where is that line in each activity? One could argue with sufficient evidence that the boundary between self help and self harm is much closer to the beginning of substance use with heroin than marijuana, and so there is a legitimate “hierarchy of hurt” within the realm of chemical substances. Then there is the issue of the nature of addiction itself. For anything, no matter how beneficial it may be to our health, has the potential to be harmful. I propose as an example, the ‘addiction’ to running. While it would be difficult to argue against the basic health benefits of this physical activity, the ‘addiction’ one may have to running could lead them to overtrain, undereat, and not listen to their body’s innate signals for rest and proper nutrition. So, therefore, I propose that the pursuit of pleasure merely as a meaning to life, as opposed to a more balanced realization of pleasures , is not an entirely noble concept.

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