The War on Drugs Is Far More Immoral Than Most Drug Use

A prohibitionist says libertarians dismiss moral considerations when they call for legalization. The truth is quite the opposite.
marijuana full full.jpg
Reuters

In the Washington Post, Peter Wehner advises the Republican Party to reassert itself as the anti-drug-legalization party. "One of the main deterrents to drug use is because it is illegal. If drugs become legal, their price will go down and use will go up," he writes. "And marijuana is far more potent than in the past. Studies have shown that adolescents and young adults who are heavy users of marijuana suffer from disrupted brain development and cognitive processing problems." Of course, no one is advocating that adolescent marijuana be made legal. And does Wehner understand that prohibition creates a powerful incentive for upping drug potency?

But rather than focus on mistaken arguments common to drug prohibitionists, I want to address a relatively novel claim: "Many people cite the 'costs' of and 'socioeconomic factors' behind drug use; rarely do people say that drug use is wrong because it is morally problematic, because of what it can do to mind and soul," Wehner writes. "In some liberal and libertarian circles, the 'language of morality' is ridiculed. It is considered unenlightened, benighted and simplistic. The role of the state is to maximize individual liberty and be indifferent to human character."


What he doesn't seem to understand is that many advocates of individual liberty, myself included, regard liberty itself as a moral imperative. I don't want to ridicule the "language of morality." I want to state, as forcefully as possible, that the War on Drugs is deeply, irredeemably immoral; that it corrodes the minds and souls of those who prosecute it, and creates incentives for bad behavior that those living under its contours have always and will always find too powerful to resist. Drug warriors may disagree, but they should not pretend that they are the only ones making moral claims, and that their opponents are indifferent to morality. Reformers are often morally outraged by prohibitionist policies and worry that nannying degrades the character of citizens.

Perhaps I should be more specific.

See the man in the photo at the top of this article? It isn't immoral for him to light a plant on fire, inhale the smoke, and enjoy a mild high for a short time, presuming he doesn't drive while high. But it would be immoral to react to his plant-smoking by sending men with guns to forcibly arrest him, convict him in a court, and lock him up for months or even years for a victimless crime. That's the choice, dear reader. So take a look at the guy in the photo and make your choice: Is it more moral to let him smoke, or to forcibly cage him with thieves, rapists, and murderers? 

My own moral judgments don't stop there.

Denying marijuana to sick people whose suffering it would ease is immoral.

When a paramilitary police squad raids a family home, battering down doors without knocking, exploding flash grenades, shooting family pets, and handcuffing children, all to recover a small number of marijuana plants, the officers or the people who ordered them there are acting immorally.  

When the United States reacts to the insatiable demand for drugs by American citizens by pursuing prohibitionist policies abroad that destabilize multiple foreign countries, it acts immorally.

When prosecutors coerce nonviolent drug offenders to risk their lives as police informants under threat of draconian prison sentences, they act immorally.

The dearth of empathy for nonviolent drug offenders serving years or even decades in prison is a moral failure.

Because we have shifted the costs of drug abuse away from the Americans who freely chose or would choose to use drugs and toward society as a whole, imposing more costs on people who never chose to use drugs but suffer from many harms of the black market, we have achieved a morally dubious redistribution. 

What about character? When leaders like Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama support policies that incarcerate young people for behavior that they themselves engaged in without any apparent harm to themselves, their futures, or anyone else, it is they who exhibit character failures.

Of course, there are drug abusers who exhibit character failures too. And when those failures affect other people, when they steal or behave violently or recklessly, they ought to be punished. Law enforcement could focus on catching them, and society could do far more to rehabilitate addicts, if so much wealth wasn't squandered on an obviously hopeless War on Drugs. Like a lot of people who favor ending it, I believe a reformed policy would be a lot more moral.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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