Reductio ad Absurdum

I can think of no more powerful argument for maintaining the existing drug prohibitions than the almost universal opposition on the part of people who call themselves “drug policy reformers” to any effective action to control the damage done by the currently licit drugs.

Every year, more than 20,000 Americans die as the result of other people’s drinking, and yet Jacob is against even modest taxes on alcohol. He nominally supports a ban on drinking by people who behave badly while drunk while opposing the one administrative mechanism that would make such a ban effective. Is a dime a drink and showing your driver’s license to the bartender such an intolerable price to pay for saving thousands of lives? [For the data about the benefits to non-drinkers of raising alcohol taxes, see Philip J. Cook’s book Paying the Tab (Princeton University Press, 2007).]

In practice, the slogan “Let’s replace prohibitions with taxes and regulations” turns out to mean “Let’s make addictive intoxicants ordinary articles of commerce.” John Stuart Mill would not approve. Drinking, even to excess, can be, Mill says, self-regarding behavior and beyond the legitimate scope of regulation. But commerce, he points out, is irreducibly social, and the sellers of dangerous commodities can reasonably the required to take steps to moderate those dangers.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In their lead essay, Earth and Fire Erowid stress the importance of developing responsible, fully informed relationships toward psychoactive drugs. Although drug prohibition has persisted for decades, the overwhelming majority of adults have tried at least one illegal drug, and these substances aren’t going away any time soon. Sadly, prohibition itself has stunted our knowledge of these substances, and, as in so many things, ignorance is both dangerous and irresponsible. Provocatively, they criticize even the word “drugs” as a tag for illegal psychoactives: Lumping them all together, they write, betrays a lack of understanding of their vastly different effects, risk profiles and — yes — benefits.

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Caulkins argues that the responsible use of psychoactive drugs is an overstretched concept, if by “psychoactive drugs” we mean everything from caffeine to heroin. In many cases, he argues, temperance may be the only responsible “use” of a given substance.

    Further, state prohibitions on pleasurable but risky acts are hardly confined to this area of law; their violation is not a genuine form of civil disobedience as long as pleasure itself is the real goal of the act. And the risks remain regardless. Duly enacted laws in a democracy deserve far more respect than this, and following the law is a part of the responsibility of all citizens.

  • Jacob Sullum notes that temperance and abstinence have been wrongly conflated, and that the Aristotelian view of temperance encompassed all of the moderate, reasoned, and honorable pleasures of life. He reiterates that virtually everyone uses psychoactive drugs of one kind or another, and that the overwhelming majority of use is responsible. He challenges the notion that the state has any interest in the private actions of individuals that do not harm anyone else, and he terms the impulse to protect people from themselves “unethical” and “an open-ended rationale for government intervention that logically leads to totalitarianism.”

  • Mark Kleiman takes up a theme already addressed by the other participants, namely the distinctions to be found within the catchall category “illegal drugs.” He notes that the risk profiles, motivations for use, and public health considerations of these substances are so far removed from one another that it may make no sense to continue to treat them as similar in public policy. Given the choice between full legalization and the status quo, he would choose the status quo, but, he argues, these alternatives should not be the only ones we consider.