All drugs, whether intended for recreational or medical purposes, carry risks that potential users need to understand. Our society has made great strides in coming to terms with this fact in regards to certain recreational drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
But the question of importance is not, “Can recreational drug use under some circumstances be harmful?” Clearly, the answer is “yes.” The question of importance facing our society is: “Should recreational drugs be legal or illegal?”
As we contemplate this question, let’s first set aside the most common canards and misconceptions.
• Legalizing drugs would legalize injurious behavior. In fact, behavior that is potentially injurious to others such as driving under the influence of anything that impairs your ability to do so safely is already illegal. Decriminalizing drugs would not affect these laws. Some go further and claim that activities that could only possibly hurt consenting individuals should also be illegal. But if our society feels the patronizing need to outlaw all acts that are potentially self-injurious, we may as well outlaw not only “extreme” activities like BASE jumping, but even mundane activities with well-known risks such as getting anywhere near a car.
• Legalizing drugs would legalize on-the-job use. In fact, employers with a zero-tolerance policy against employee drug use would be completely unaffected by decriminalization. If a job requires unimpaired employees (and many, if not most, do) then employers would still be able to take appropriate action against employees that show up for work impaired for any reason— including impairment caused by prescription drugs, or even insufficient sleep. Particularly cautious employers could still implement drug testing.
• Legalizing drugs would lead to a huge rise in the number of drug users. In fact, illegal drugs are already plentiful and easily available to everyone who wants them. I have certainly had the opportunity to use recreational drugs, and it has not been my fear of the law that has compelled me to decline. If the law changed, I would still decline. If you oppose decriminalization and think my case atypical, then ask yourself if you too would continue to decline marijuana or other recreational drugs that are perfectly legal, taxed and regulated. If the only things keeping you from using recreational drugs are the laws against them and not the risks involved, then you clearly have more thinking to do.
• UPDATE 5/8/07: Legalizing drugs will encourage children to use them. A friend recently pointed me towards this article on Snopes, verifying that drug peddlers are making crystal meth in candy flavors. She asked me how something like this affected my feelings on legalization. I surprised her by replying that I didn’t think it had anything to do with legalization. I then explained that giving children potentially harmful substances is already against the law, and would remain so. Children are already contravened from buying alcohol and tobacco, and are also restricted from many other activities in which adults may freely engage. The situation would remain unchanged with regard to other drugs. Therefore, we are talking about legalization for adults, who are legally responsible for their actions and their consequences. Moreover, legal drugs can be regulated, both in how they are manufactured and how they are marketed— witness the successful campaign against Joe Camel. However, the organized crime currently filling the demand for all recreational drugs including candy meth can never be given enough market pressure nor legal regulation to stop doing what makes them money.
• Use of recreational drugs guarantees a trip to the bottom of the social ladder. These prominent people would disagree.
• Only potheads and wanna-be drug users feel that recreational drugs should be legal. These law enforcement professionals would disagree.
To sum up, the War on Drugs has been a colossal failure. The economic consequences alone are staggering. One of the most thorough and eloquent arguments against the War on Drugs was penned by New York Times bestselling author Peter McWilliams, who wrote the excellent book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do— The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country. The full text of the book is available here, and the section on drugs is here. In 2000, McWilliams was denied medical marijuana and tragically choked to death on his own vomit— another pointless casualty of this pointless “war.”
To wrap up, Penn & Teller give their usual biting view of the subject in this episode of their series, Bullshit! (Penn, by the way, says he has never even had so much as a sip of alcohol. Teller, as usual, had no comment.)