Friday, March 10, 2006 2:26 AM
On Friday, February 24, Soren ’08 was arrested for possession of LSD. The Crimson broke the story the following Monday and has been covering it ever since. Soren is a member of the Harvard College Libertarian Forum (HLF), Harvard’s new and only libertarian group. While the group, and libertarians in general, does not condone Soren’s possession of LSD—just as we neither endorse nor critique any personal choice—Soren’s case vividly reminds the Harvard community of an important issue that is too easy to ignore while inside the college bubble: the criminalization of drugs.
Currently, federal law prohibits the possession or severely restricts the possession and trade of a number of substances, collectively labeled “illegal drugs,” prohibitions which the U.S. government spends about $35 billion per year enforcing. While many argue that the present laws are too restrictive of certain substances—notably marijuana—or contended that some drugs presently criminalized should be heavily regulated instead of banned outright, libertarians take a different stance: the sale, purchase, and use of all drugs—and all substances in general—should be legal, not punished by coercive force.
Different libertarians have different reasons for holding these views. Deontological or “philosophical” libertarians hold that it is unjust to punish innocent people. Anyone who has never violated the rights of another does not deserve to have force used upon her, for any reason whatsoever. Violating the right of an innocent person to dispose of her life and property as she sees fit—to own and run her own life—can never be morally justified. As the late Pellegrino University Professor Robert Nozick argued, “the state may not use its coercive apparatus…in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.”
Drug laws punish people not for violating the rights of another, but for using their own bodies in the manner they choose. In Soren’s case, the state is persecuting him for merely possessing certain goods that he had acquired legitimately. Actions one does to oneself (like consuming drugs), or does with the consent of all involved parties (like trading drugs) are never immoral, as they represent merely personal decisions that a moral agent makes for himself. Indeed, allowing the actor to make those choices for himself, allowing a person to shape “his life in accordance with some overall plan,” Nozick contends, “is his way of giving meaning to his life.” The state can, and should, use force to punish people for violating other citizens’ rights, but using force merely because some citizens disagree with the personal decisions of other citizens is always unjust.
Furthermore, as consequentialist libertarians argue, regardless of the morality of anti-drug laws, they inevitably have deeply pernicious effects on social welfare. The basic logic of anti-drug laws depends on the elimination of Pareto-improving exchanges—to what benefit? If a person is made happier by ingesting LSD, why prohibit it? Should the government ban other substances that give people happiness in the short term, but that come with long-term negatives? Perhaps the government should ban ice cream or outlaw drunken hook-ups. One can make a case that there might be some tiny benefit to certain myopic individuals from such a law, but any law also apodictically prevents any exchanges that would actually render the parties better off, as nearly all do.
Moreover, drug prohibition–just like the prohibition of any good or service–generates a huge black market. Drug laws merely raise the cost of drugs, not prevent all use: instead, the market goes underground.
This illegal market has innumerable terrible effects. It is a major cause of violent crime in the United States. Experience with other countries (like many European nations), different time periods (before the U.S. imposed strictly enforced bans), and other goods and services (alcohol during Prohibition, prostitution, etc.) show that when the state prohibits, violence follows. The reason is simple: when people cannot resolve disputes using courts, they will do so with weapons. This means that people who are good at violence will tend towards the drug market. Further, because prohibition raises the price of drugs, it causes money to be channeled to these agents of violence, from urban gangs to Columbian cartels and Afghani terrorists (and because illegal drugs can’t be taxed like other goods, criminals get to keep all of their profits).
Criminalization even increases the direct danger of drugs to the user—increasing the harms to the very individuals that the laws are paternalistically designed to protect. Because one cannot openly advertise and compete in illegal markets, product quality declines precariously. Dealers sell drugs cut with dangerous chemicals and of inconsistent potency—two factors that cause most overdoses. In other words, anti-drug laws actually increase the rate at which users die because of the drugs. Furthermore, criminalizing drugs leads to overdoses because the penalties for getting caught with a small amount of a controlled substance are nearly as bad as the penalties for getting caught with many times more.
For these reasons, libertarians believe that the state should cease its persecution of Soren and the millions like him who solely want the right to do what they want with their own bodies.