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A Moral Argument against the War on Drugs

By Julian Savulescu, Bennett Foddy | April 10, 2012


Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has argued that the war on drugs has failed and that cannabis should be decriminalized globally. He wrote in 2009 that the hardline approach has brought "disastrous" consequences for Latin America.

Having just returned from Rio, one can only agree. One of us was staying with an eminent professor of philosophy. We were returning to her house with her 11-year-old daughter, only to have our way blocked by police with machine guns. They were hunting a drug lord in the local favela—this road was the only escape route and they were preparing for a possible altercation.

The sole legitimate reason for interfering with a person's liberty is when he risks harming others.

Cardoso highlights the practical failure of a zero-tolerance approach. A zero-tolerance approach to a crime like taking drugs must always fail, in the same way as a zero-tolerance approach to alcohol, prostitution, or drugs in sport will always fail. Paradoxically, the worst thing you could do to the drug lords in Rio is not to wage a war on them, but to decriminalize cocaine and marijuana. They would be out of business in one day. Supplies could be monitored, controlled, and regulated—the harm to users and third parties significantly reduced.

The case for legalizing drugs has been made often, most recently by Cardoso and by Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, who this week cosigned a report declaring that "the war on drugs has failed." The argument is nearly always put forward in terms of the burdens that the drug war has imposed on us in terms of crime and public health. And it is true that these things give us good reason to abandon Nixon's war on drugs.

But we so rarely hear a moral argument in favor of liberalizing drug laws. This is a mistake. Although experts have told us time and time again that things would be better without the drug war, politicians have ignored the expert advice because voters do not want drugs laws to be loosened. And voters feel this way not because they think they know better than the experts, but because they have moral objections to drug use. There is a hidden moral debate driving the war on drugs that we never seem to bring out in the open.

The original drug prohibitions had a moral rationale rather than a practical one. It began with the American prohibition of opium, which was primarily motivated by a moral objection to white people smoking in Chinese-run opium dens. This began a prohibition movement in the United States. In 1913, marijuana—which was used almost exclusively by Mexican and Indian immigrants—was prohibited for the first time by the state of California.

Today, when new drugs are added to the long list of illegal substances, it is because they are judged to be "addictive," not because they are harmful. The U.S. Controlled Substances Act calls for a drug to be prohibited if it has "a high potential for abuse" and if it "may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence." The drug does not have to be harmful in any other sense. According to U.S. government statistics, paracetamol (acetaminophen) is involved in nearly five times as many emergency room visits as MDMA, and yet it remains available in supermarkets around the world.

Every pleasurable activity is addictive.

So the main reason that drugs like alcohol and caffeine are legal, while cocaine and MDMA are not, is that the latter are judged to be "addictive." (Suspend for a moment the true belief that alcohol and caffeine are addictive.) Addiction does harm the addict, to be sure. But self-harm cannot provide grounds for prohibiting a substance.

As Mill famously put it, the sole legitimate reason for interfering with a person's liberty is when he risks harming others. And while it is sometimes argued that the "drug problem" makes us all worse off, most of these harms flow directly from the zero-tolerance approach—drug prohibitions harm others when they are robbed, beaten, or killed by those who run the black market of drugs.

It is sometimes argued by liberal-minded people that addictions warrant state interference because they render the addict incompetent, powerless to make an autonomous decision to take drugs. The addict becomes like a child in need of parental protection—or in this case the protection of the state. In this way "addiction" becomes a moral concept, not a form of harm. It is a condition that robs us of our moral status.

We have argued in a number of articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) that such a view of addiction is false. People who take drugs are not suffering from a disease and they do not necessarily have some pathological failing of will power. They may be imprudent or irrational in taking drugs, but then again we all are, nearly every day, when we eat unhealthily, engage in risky sports, smoke, drink, or gamble.

Addicts may place to greater value on pleasure, or on excitement, or escape from reality, but their addictions are not different in kind to desires for other pleasurable activities. People become "addicted" to gambling, video games, Internet use, exercise, sex, carrots, sugar, and water. These substances or activities do not "hijack" the brain—they provide pleasure utilizing the same brain pathways as drugs. Every pleasurable activity is "addictive."

The public discourse on drugs includes liberty, health, and crime, but it so rarely includes the value of pleasure. We do not have to be hedonists to believe that pleasure is one of the important goods in a person's life. A liberal society should be neutral with regard to which pleasures people may pursue; it should not force people to conform to a particular conception of "good" and "bad" pleasures.

But more importantly, if every pleasurable behavior can be addictive, then there can be no reason to believe that the pleasures of drug use are less important than the pleasures of good food and wine, of rock-climbing and football, or of browsing the Internet. Each of these things is pleasurable, and hence each is addictive, and each can be harmful if done to excess. But we all have a right to pursue the pleasures we find valuable, even though each of these pleasures puts us at risk of addictions or addiction-like problems: alcoholism, pathological Internet use, sex addiction, binge eating disorder, and so on.

A liberal society should be neutral with regard to the pleasures people choose to pursue.

The right to pursue pleasure gives us reason to legalize drugs, while addiction and self-harm fail to give us good reason to prohibit them. That is the essence of a strong moral argument against the war on drugs.

There remains one possible ground for interfering in liberty and retaining the ban on drugs. That ground is the public interest. If society were to be severely impaired by liberalization of drug laws, that might be an extreme case that warrants a ban on drugs. But our (admittedly limited) experience suggests the opposite—the Netherlands appears to have reduced its drug problem, without increasing its overall rate of drug use, by enacting relatively liberal drug laws for "soft" drugs like marijuana. And as Cardoso argues, a complete ban seems to be strongly against the public interest, keeping drug lords in business and the user and others in a position of severe vulnerability.

In the future, perhaps we will give up our squeamishness about drugs which provide pleasure. We could use modern pharmacological science to select or even design drugs which give us the pleasure or experiences we seek, but cheaply and without serious acute or chronic health risks.

For the present, the drug which we can most freely obtain is one of the most addictive, one which contributes to violent behavior, one which produces terrible chronic health effects and the worst withdrawal syndrome of all drugs: Alcohol.

The time has come to take a rational approach to drugs.

© 2012 Oxford University. Republished from the Practical Ethics blog with kind permission.

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