A recent article in The Economist pointed out the rather disturbing statistic that while the U.S. houses a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, it incarcerates roughly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
Unfortunately, the fastest growing segment of the prison population, convicted drug users, is jailed not on the grounds of having committed acts of violence against their peers, but for being guilty of a “crime” committed against themselves, namely, using drugs.
Few would disagree that people must be punished (by the state or otherwise) for certain abuses against their neighbor. It is an obvious point, well-established by both time and experience, that there must be appropriate discouragements in place against such abuses or else the rewards of violence and predation might appear too sweet and tempting to the unscrupulous and the powerful. Even if it’s not a self-evident point, it’s a critical arrangement that must be realized before the possibility of any functioning, peaceable society has any enduring viability.
But just because people have commonly agreed amongst themselves that certain instruments of deterrence ought to be in place to reduce the occurrence of crimes like murder, theft, and rape, it is not also clear that people have reached such a consent when it comes to crimes that an individual commits against himself.
Yet this is the major and underlying justification for the “War on Drugs,” that colossal campaign exhausting billions upon billions from the taxpayers’ treasury, which is being waged with full and fearful martial aggression against drug users.
Our system of justice is one which purports to punish those for having done something wrong. Such a premise obviously presupposes a moralistic foundation which, whether it is popular or not to acknowledge the origins of such justification, is widely accepted nonetheless.
Since the U.S. government arrests far more people for drug offenses than for any other single crime in the U.S., it is safe to assume that the government considers drug use to be a very wrong act indeed (Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation). This viewpoint seems to be mainly justified by the potential harm that may result from certain drugs. There even exists a clinical term for the crime: “drug abuse.” Of course, not all drugs are in fact harmful to the human body. Many in the medical profession actually insist upon the health benefits of certain illegal drugs. And considering that tobacco happens to be more addictive than most of the other drugs currently in existence and can lead to some rather nasty and unhealthful side effects, the grounds for arguing that certain drugs ought to be prohibited based on their negative health effects is a bit specious and hollow.
But let us not quibble about the peripheral issue of whether certain drugs are healthy or unhealthy. Let us return to the idea, which underlies our justice system, that a criminal should be punished for doing something wrong. In this case, the “crime” (I have space only to speak of drug users themselves) involves simply the individual voluntarily ingesting, injecting, or otherwise consuming a substance. How, one must ask, can the government justify punishing individuals for such a deed?
Either a man has a right to himself or he does not. If he has such a right, how can it be argued that he does not have a right to also harm himself or, as in this case, commit an act which the government happens to define as harmful? If we truly allow that a person has a right to himself, let him chop off his limbs and reaffix them in more artistic arrangements if he finds it amusing to do so. Or, if his bravest and best plan for meeting Monday happens to be hanging himself by light of the morning sun, who is to demand that he does not have such a right? And if he does not have the right to his own life, answer this: who possess such a right on his behalf?
Surely, taking one’s own life is a tasteless act except under the rarest circumstances, but is it wrong? I do not intend to belabor this question in a philosophical sense which presumes a final reckoning with God, but rather in its purest pragmatic form, which is, appropriately, both the realm and the limit of the state.
If drug use is a sin, let God punish perpetuators however severely he wishes. But punishing sins is God’s business. It is not the state’s. The state must be concerned with the more lowly and practical responsibilities of punishing crimes. And how can an individual commit a crime against himself? Does an individual deserve to be punished when there is no accuser? Does it make sense to punish a man for stealing his own wallet?
Is drug use a selfish vice, is it unbecoming, is it craven and crude? So be it. Men are often guilty of committing self-indulgent and base acts. In fact, a brief look around you will confirm that the overwhelming miserable mass of humanity devotes the majority of their time to such behaviors. Personally, I neither approve nor allow drug use for myself. But given all the other shameful vices that my fallen nature all too readily succumbs to, I am not about to elevate myself to the lofty and undeserved station of condemning and judging the vices of my fellow men when such vices harm only themselves. Certainly, no legislator or judge this side of heaven deserves any higher station than I in this respect.