Freedom Means The Right to Make the Wrong Choice: The Case against Drug War Paternalism


Recently, Barack Obama was applauded for his admission that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. Yet, should we really be praising his empty words? Despite his admission that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, he has made no new steps towards legalization or even decriminalization of drugs. Effectively, Obama will continue his stated policy from the election when faced with the issue of marijuana: “Am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach? No.” So while he, rightly, believes that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, he refuses to act on his belief.

When asked for his justification, Obama had the following to say “If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say: ‘Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka,’ are we open to that?”

Evidently, Obama still thinks government should manage drug use paternalistically: recently after his admission that it was no more dangerous than alcohol, the president stated “I stand by my belief . . . that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is, and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge.” Paternalism is forcing someone to do something for their own good. This can be accomplished through “soft” paternalist policies, such as “sin taxes,” or “hard” paternalist policies such as the imprisonment of drug users. The question we face is: does the state have the right to force someone to make correct decisions?

Paternalist policies undermine people’s rights to live their lives according to their own choices. So while we may disapprove of it, the choice to use drugs like marijuana is not a crime, merely a vice. Crimes initiate force against persons or property while vices have no victim besides the vicious person. Simply getting drunk at a bar and saying ridiculous things is not considered a crime, yet smoking marijuana and making the same mistakes under that influence is. How is that consistent? So long as a person does not hurt anyone through the use of force, his decision to use a given substance should be respected legally, even if it may lead to his ruination.

Prohibitionists oppose ending the war on drugs because they believe drug use causes more crime. One common argument against legalization or decriminalization of drugs is that users of “hard” drugs like crack, meth, PCP, etc. are more likely to commit crimes simply because of the vice they are choosing to commit. But this thinking is not consistent with reality: alcohol is much more likely than any other drug to be involved in violent crime. Now, that is not to say that drugs that would surely cause one to commit a crime should be legal. Doug Husak, a noted legal philosopher, once said if we could find, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a drug would turn people into homicidal monsters, we should ban it; but as of now, we do not have a drug that would turn Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.

While the use of a drug itself should be legal, any crimes committed under its influence should of course be prosecuted: they would be illegal even if a sober person committed them. People who commit crimes under the influence were not compelled to; the drug simply reduced their inhibition, making it easier for them to commit the crime. For instance, a bar fight is unlikely to occur unless the one who starts it is the sort who would choose to be violent in the first place.

This raises the question: who knows our experiences, lives, and limits better than we do? And if we cannot be trusted to know them, what makes someone else more qualified to? There should be no reason to prevent consenting adults from doing what they want with their own bodies. At times, one person may actually have better knowledge of living safely in general, but only an individual has the real ability to decide if that knowledge applies to his life. Sometimes marijuana use may be a bad thing, but there are times when it makes sense. In a recent interview, Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers explained how many players use marijuana to recover from pain during the game, without worrying about getting hooked on opiates. There are other legitimate uses.

The state should have no right to regulate the vices of its citizens no matter how dangerous they may be to the citizens themselves. If the state can regulate things like drug use because it hurts the people engaging in it, perhaps the state should also prevent opening businesses from making ridiculous financial decisions, or stop you from making  investment decisions even if it will destroy you. Or perhaps in an effort to prevent STDs and unplanned pregnancies, premarital and unprotected sex should be criminalized.

So while it is disappointing that president Obama refuses to drop his paternalism about marijuana and other drugs, it is not surprising given his track record in other areas. His paternalistic policies include the individual mandate in health care and his plan to reform higher ed by tying funding to student success. Both sides of our political dialogue oppose certain paternalistic polices, whether they are health care mandates or the prohibition of drugs. Neither side is willing to reject paternalism outright. Voters need to understand that as a whole, paternalism is an unjustified philosophy: adults can and should make their own informed decisions.

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