“Should We Legalize That?”
“Should we legalize that?”
I get that question all the time. My friends know I’m a libertarian, and I think it strikes people, particularly skeptics, as a “gotcha” question. For me, it’s not.
My moral compass revolves around the harm principle and individual agency. For non-philosophy-nerds, the harm principle can sound kind of wonkish, but it’s honestly pretty simple and vaguely reminiscent of the golden rule: the actions of the individual should only be limited to prevent harm of other individuals. In other words, your right to violently wave your arm through the air ends as soon as it touches my face, as it then inflicts harm on me. Other than that, you should feel justified in doing what you want with your arm.
The way I think about drug policy — and most other questions of legalization — is pretty easy to figure out. I think the government should play a limited role in legislating what we do with our lives and bodies, but I think it’s reasonable for the government to legislate based off of the harm principle, as a means of curbing our natural Hobbesian state-of-nature brutish-and-short tendencies. J.S. Mill had a similar concept, and much of Jefferson’s thought was influenced by Mill.
Ultimately, it’s not up to me whether we should legalize something or not. Considering we all have different risk evaluations, drug experiences, and perceptions of harm, I don’t think any of us should be waving magic wands that decide that MDMA is okay but cocaine isn’t (spoiler alert: both can be okay, if used in moderation, but both can be hugely destructive if abused. That nuance is lost on many people). Instead, I apply the harm principle — does private use of this drug directly impact someone else? Does the state created by this drug potentially impact children or onlookers? Accordingly, should public use of this drug be legislated, but private use should be allowed? Would injection facilities work well in terms of mitigating risk but maintaining individual autonomy? Is possession of this drug, not use, reasonable to use as grounds for sentencing someone for years in jail? Will jail time cure them of the desperation that motivated them to use or distribute this drug, or will it make it worse?
I don’t consider myself an authority, so it bugs me when people ask me what I think about legalizing various substances. Generally, I err on the side of allowing as much personal autonomy as possible, but when the harm principle element of that is ignored, people get the wrong idea. Similarly, if I just focus on the potentiality for harm to be caused, many people get the sense that potential harm automatically outweighs individual agency. I notice this a lot with heroin, since so many people perceive it as highly addictive and destructive. The concept of legalizing it rubs many people the wrong way, since they’re starting from a mental place of “this should be illegal and it is legitimate for the government to exercise authority in this area.” For me, my starting place is often individual rights and personal responsibility, with government intervention used sparingly.
The other issue with “should we legalize X” is that a market will always emerge, for any substance, no matter how bad. There’s a market for kidneys, there’s a market for automatic guns, and there’s a market for PCP. I don’t believe in fully succumbing to this tendency (i.e. I will not be creating an Ebay marketplace for the sale of children anytime soon, unless my financial situation worsens), but I do believe that damage control methods are sometimes the most humane, as opposed to the far-simpler solution of punitive-ass incarceration. For example, Insite, the heroin injection facility in British Columbia, is a program with fairly positive results in terms of reigning in the public health problem of heroin abuse that often disproportionately scourges poor communities. Instead of ignoring the problem in hopes that it would get better, harm reduction advocates lobbied the government of BC for the ability to try this experimental concept. Now, what started out as an experimental program has provided a safe and non-judgmental place for addicts to go to inject, that also has a voluntary treatment component for those who wish to end their drug reliance. Some humbling statistics: from 2004 to 2010, there have been 1418 overdoses at Insite. Yet, there have been no fatalities. Why? Because even though the model respects individual autonomy (in choosing substance, in choosing dosage), users are in a safe facility where a medical staff intervenes when somebody overdoses.
These statistics don’t make drug abuse any less sad, but they do change the way I view so many elements of our system. I see individual rights as crucial to our existence as fulfilled creatures, and I don’t understand the concept of ceding SO MANY of these rights to government entities with skewed interests, who don’t often recognize the positive aspects of many drugs. Most people can agree that it’s bizarre that twenty-year-olds can’t legally have a glass of wine with dinner, and most people are coming to the conclusion that me smoking three joints at a party is better than me taking three shots at a party. I extend this distrust of government decision-making one step further than most people, but feel entirely confident in doing so — I’ve seen and read about the valuable medical effects of many drugs, and know that I can make safe choices for my own body. Furthermore, I see compassionate, pragmatic medical professionals respecting the bodily autonomy of users and addicts alike, in BC, and creating safer environments that have saved thousands of lives. There’s a whole frontier out there that we’re closing ourselves off to because we’re too afraid of returning to people the individual rights and bodily autonomy that they once had.
So, yeah. We should probably legalize that.