Over and over again, one of my favorite authors, Reinhold Niebuhr, has written that humans are incapable of perfect love. Yet, in spite of this fact, we perpetually try to fashion a perfect world from that which is inherently imperfect.
Resultantly, our pursuit of excellence and moral purity is most certainly doomed from the start, and the struggle against wickedness, at the very best, can achieve only marginal victories.
Therefore, any attempt to achieve such elusive purity will only hurt the very people we are trying to “rescue.” Invariably, this leads to persecution and the rejection of the rescuer. It is in this context that I shall consider whether drug legalization is a “moral” choice.
The first issue to consider with drug legalization is who defines what a “bad” drug is. The “who,” in this case, is secular authority, an institution that not only enacts self-contradictory rules, but needlessly violates people in enforcing these rules (i.e., the war on drugs). For example, tobacco is an addictive, destructive, yet legal drug. According to the CDC,
“Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year, with more than 41,000 of these deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke. In addition, smoking-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion a year, including nearly $170 billion in direct medical care for adults and $156 billion in lost productivity. In 2013, an estimated 17.8% (42.1 million) of U.S. adults were current cigarette smokers” (italics mine).
Cigarette smoking causes cancer, and cigarettes contain more than 7,000 toxic chemicals, 70 of which are known carcinogens. According to the American Cancer Society, “smoking accounts for at least 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States. It causes 87% of lung cancer deaths in men and 70% in women.”
In fact, smoking causes more deaths than all other illegal drugs combined.
Cigarette smoking is more dangerous than American war, in that, “10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States during its history.”
As a physician, I can think of no better objective way to ascertain how dangerous a threat is than by considering how many lives it has taken. Hence, there is no moral foundation whatsoever for the continued legalization of cigarettes, especially considering the fact that second-hand smoke also poses a threat to human life. Exposure to second-hand smoke is a coerced, involuntary molestation of an individual’s natural rights by the inconsideration of their cigarette-smoking neighbors. A similar dynamic holds true for tobacco companies: they knowingly manufacture, distribute, and profit from a carcinogenic toxin that not only kills smokers, but also harms those who happen to be around smokers. Second-hand exposure makes tobacco so much more malevolent and makes other drugs less threatening. For example, considering only chemical exposure to illicit drugs, no one ever died from second-hand cocaine, second-hand LSD, or second-hand heroin. If an adult knowingly and voluntarily ingests a substance that is harmful to them and accepts these risks, it remains their right as a free person to make that choice whether good or bad. If society artificially restrains this choice, we are resultantly, as Niebuhr has said, making a futile attempt to create a perfectly moral person within an immoral world.
Consequently, using tobacco as a benchmark, there is no logical rebuttal to total drug legalization.
It follows, then, that the second issue to consider with drug legalization is who truly defines what people are free to do and not to do. Can a human being reject God? Yes, because natural law (given from God) gives humankind that fundamental freedom. If, therefore, a human can reject what is eternally good, why then can he or she not also accept that which is temporally evil?
The third consideration asks, based on current moral standards, what remaining justification exists for not enacting total drug legalization?
According to current standards, just because something is legal does not mean you have to engage in it, because you have the free choice not to. For example, other people may worship money and wealth or engage in prostitution, but this has no bearing on how you live your life.
According to current standards, just because something is addictive does not mean it should be criminalized. Examples of such addictions include social media, coffee, gambling, and pornography.
According to current standards, just because something is dangerous does not mean it should be illegal. Examples of such dangerous activities include driving a car, riding a bicycle without a helmet on the wrong side of the road, and skydiving.
I was careful to preface all of these statements with “according to current standards.” I personally do not use illicit drugs, nor do I desire to use any of them. I believe that addiction to an illicit drug in many cases reflects a lack of self-control and an attempt to hopelessly fill a void that drugs ironically cannot satisfy. Illicit drug use suggests a numbed reality in which normal life is no longer stimulating because users have forgotten how to get their “kicks” from the ordinary. I say this because it is possible to co-exist and peacefully go about your own personal business in a society that has adopted less-than-admirable rules. This points to the fourth consideration: that availability does not exclusively create demand. People are the ones who create demand, and thus the only surefire way to “eliminate” the drug problem is to curb appetites and assuage the joylessness and the many other variables that drive people to use drugs in the first place.
The fifth consideration affirms that we cannot legislate a perfectly moral world and we are often forced to choose between a greater evil and a lesser evil. The lesser evil is the legalization of all drugs. The greater evil is the war on drugs.
As Lawrence M. Vance recently wrote on LewRockwell.com,
“Some unfortunate Americans have been sentenced to life in prison for drug possession because it was their third drug offense. Thanks to the War on Drugs and civil asset forfeiture laws, police regularly practice “policing for profit” whereby they confiscate cash from law-abiding Americans because having a large sum of money on you “must” mean that you are involved in drug trafficking. And then there are the outrages that are generally not seen: Americans incarcerated for drug offenses who are raped, beaten, humiliated, and suffer the loss of their jobs, their money, and their families. And drug warriors maintain that it is drug users who are immoral?
In a nutshell, what is the War on Drugs? It is simply government bureaucrats, nanny state do-gooders, puritanical busybodies, statist drug warriors, and assorted hypocrites telling you want you can and can’t consume, swallow, smoke, sniff, snort, inject, or ingest, and locking you up in a cage if you possess, manufacture, process, buy, sell, distribute, transport, cultivate, or “traffick in” a substance the government doesn’t approve of.”
Since the war on drugs began in 1971, the U.S. Government has spent more than $1 trillion with little to no tangible dividends. We spend billions every year to seek out and thwart drug users and distributors at the taxpayer’s expense. We then prosecute these individuals at the taxpayer’s expense and then incarcerate these individuals at the taxpayer’s ongoing expense. This “war” has resulted in the United States having the largest incarcerated population in the entire world and the largest population of drug users in the entire world. The drug war is ridiculously expensive, has failed to curb demand, has failed to eliminate supply, and requires that taxpayers finance the incarceration of all these “prisoners of war” in the process. And in this war, the central disease is never treated—it settles for chasing symptoms. The drug war, like Iraq and Afghanistan, has failed miserably. It’s time to stop fighting.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Indeed. And so total drug legalization—an idea that may whisk many into a dreadful and dreary apocalyptic nightmare—admittedly is not a moral idea in and of itself. The proposal in no way changes those moral absolutes that are immutable.
Drug legalization is, however, the relatively more moral choice in an immoral world. If we stick with what we’ve been doing, the economic and human costs are so insurmountable we would have to abandon our entire notion of morality altogether.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
 Mokdad AH, Marks JS, Stroup DF, Gerberding JL. Actual Causes of Death in the United States. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 2004.
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014.
Thank you for this very interesting and thought-provoking post. The thought that we live in a country that spends more on incarcerating an individual for a drug offense than it does in educating them is a crime in and of itself. By legalizing the drugs that flow through many neighborhoods in our nation, we could use the taxes generated to fund failing schools, supplement healthcare for the poor, and develop useful industries that would provide work for the unemployed. If we hope to ever become a “moral” nation we need to focus our efforts on things that will actually on things that really matter.
Indeed, taxation in the case of recreational drugs is one of the few instances where I actually believe taxation will add value to the lives of citizens. Of course, the federal government should play no part since they are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. It is perfectly reasonable for states to impose a consumption tax (and therefore not penalizing productivity) and to use such funds in a way that benefits residents of that state equally.
The reality is, the only way we can ever become a “moral” world is through Christ. It is the only pursuit that really matters and rids moral busybodies of their incessant desire to to “good works” for others. If we have a rehabilitated sinner, they remain a sinner. If we have an educated sinner, they remain a sinner. If we have a cultured sinner, they remain a sinner. If we transform an indolent, irresponsible sinner into a productive sinner, they remain a sinner. But if we preach the gospel and serve as vehicles for Holy Spirit to regenerate people, then we would have shown others that which has eternal value: reconciliation with God.