by Brian Tomasik
Due date: 5 March 2004
Brian in 2017: As the last paragraph of this old essay explains, I strongly oppose most of the War on Drugs in practice. Imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders is one of the greatest modern injustices against humans in the United States.
Questions concerning the right of society to prohibit certain activities arise in many areas—from abortion to gay marriage. One of those areas is the use of drugs for nonmedical purposes, particularly those drugs that are currently illegal. Some people feel that it is the right of an individual to use drugs just as much as it is the right of an individual to eat and drink whatever he or she chooses; a person should have the right to take drugs if he or she is willing to face the consequences, some argue. However, it is within the authority of a society to proscribe drug use because drugs are usually deleterious to the drug user and because the pernicious impacts of drug use often extend beyond the drug user himself or herself.
Drug users very often endure health problems as a consequence of their actions. Cigarettes have been irrefragably proven to contribute to lung cancer, emphysema, and countless other respiratory ailments. Excesses of alcohol or minor doses of some highly potent drugs can lead to death. The addictive nature of drugs, moreover, renders severe drug abusers unable to function in the real world without frequent drug hits. It is true that drug use is a type of personal choice, however myopic a choice it may be. However, it is also true that society has a right to limit freedom of action for the good of the individual. Public school attendance is mandatory—even though it confines individual freedom of action—because society has recognized that it is more important to ensure that people are educated than it is to create unfettered liberty. Suicide is illegal—even though it might be considered a rightful choice for an individual to make—because society has recognized that it is more important to discourage the often-irrational taking of one’s own life than it is to guarantee personal freedom of action. [Brian in 2017: I now disagree with outlawing suicide.]
Not only is drug use unhealthy to the drug abuser, but it is damaging to other people as well. When drugs are abused, the user can become confused and incapable of rational judgment. This may not only cause the drug abuser to hurt himself or herself, but it may also harm other people, such as when a drunk driver crashes into a pedestrian or kills another driver. Drug use can also bring emotional trauma by provoking fights within a family or by worrying those who care about the health of the drug abuser. Society has a right to prohibit those individual actions that have an inordinately baneful impact on the lives of others. An obvious example is that it is illegal to abuse, rape, or kill another person even though such actions could conceivably be construed—however tenuously—to be forms of the exercise of individual liberty.
Society has the legitimate power to make illegal the use of nonmedical drugs. Not only are most drugs detrimental to the user’s health, but they can also devastate families emotionally and even kill other people. Society does have an obligation to protect the rights of individuals to behave freely, but it has an even greater obligation to ensure that people do what is best for themselves and what will not devastate the lives of others.
(Note: While I believe that society has the right to proscribe drug use, I do not believe it is the proper course of action. Marijuana and other currently illicit drugs should no more be prohibited than should cigarettes or alcohol. Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders in jails that may only deprave them further, we should redirect those funds to rehabilitation programs that strive to help drug addicts in a meaningful way. Dollar for dollar, rehabilitation is many times more effective than the failed “War on Drugs.”)