The War on Drugs: Should It Be Your Right to Use Narcotics?

If we as a society are allowed to do a variety of dangerous things (bungee jumping, skydiving, drinking), why does drug use cross the line?

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In the Preamble to the 1971 Report of the White House Conference on Youth (which I mentioned in my first post), the nearly 1,500 conference delegates reaffirmed the importance of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They also added a few other "crucial" amendments, outlining rights that would "be meaningful to all persons in our society." Those rights included:

  • The right to adequate food, clothing, and a decent home.
  • The right of the individual to do her/his thing, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of another.
  • The right to preserve and cultivate ethnic and cultural heritages.
  • The right to do whatever is necessary to preserve these rights.

Like the other focuses of the conference, such as the draft, education, unemployment, and environmentalism, these rights spoke clearly to the delegates' desire to live peacefully and prosperously in their natural and political terrain. In the realm of drug use, however, one of these rights stands out from the rest: the 'right of the individual to do her/his thing.' As long as no one gets hurt or has their own rights trampled upon, the delegates argued, why does an individual's choice to smoke pot or shoot heroin necessitate regulation (or punishment) from the federal government? In other words, why do basic personal rights collapse as soon as imbibed chemicals are involved?

In the debate over the root causes of drug use, particularly over the question of whether it is a personal choice, the issues of personal and societal rights frames the discussion completely. Drug use (or nonuse) may be a choice, a right, or even a function of a free-market, capitalist economy. The questions that the conference delegates bring up are sound: Do we have a right to unimpeded personal conduct (including the right to alter our consciousness) so long as no one else is being harmed? Or is the personal harm caused by drug use sufficient for federal prohibition? If we as a society are allowed to do a variety of other dangerous things (bungee jumping, skydiving, and consuming legal liquor and cigarettes, for instance), why does drug use cross the line between a 'personal right' and a 'societal danger'? And, really, what causes more harm: drug use itself, or the prohibitionist war on drugs?

Defendants of the personal right to use drugs come from both the left and right of the political spectrum. On the left, one finds the delegates of the Youth Conference, who argue that the right of every person to harmlessly do 'her/his thing' is a core component of the American tenet of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The ACLU, for instance, endorses the personal right to consume drugs. Former director Ira Glasser noted in 2000 that "the ACLU's position is basically that criminal prohibition is inappropriate in matters that involve a person's own behavior." And the flourishing medical marijuana movement regularly asserts the rights of its patients to live a healthy, pain-free life, even if that means consuming a substance that is currently considered to have "no medical use" for treatment in the United States.

The idea that drug use was essentially a civil right had particular resonance in the 1960s and 1970s, as several movements broke down barriers of governmental prohibition on personal conduct. The civil rights, gay rights, and feminist movements battled to give certain citizens the rights they deserved but had long been denied. In Loving vs. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. In Roe vs. Wade (1973), women were given increased control over their own reproductive systems. That this thinking would extend to the rights of individuals to consume what they please was, according to the Youth Conference delegates, a natural line of thought. And this right was worth preserving, they argued, so long as no one else got hurt, an argument used to support many of the other civil rights advancements of the time as well.

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Emily Dufton is a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, where she works as a teaching assistant in GW's University Writing Program. She served in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, where she worked as an agriculture extension agent.

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