An open-eyed look at the history of drug prohibition makes it pretty clear that the bans on recreational drugs were born of a combination of puritanism and racism, then nurtured by opportunistic politicians, selfish crusaders, and rent-seekers of various stripes. Half a century of failure led to the declaration of a War, that, another half century later, is by any rational assessment a societal and economic disaster of global and colossal proportions.

And yet, prohibitionists continue to resist admitting or remediating any of this, and instead demand ever-tighter restrictions on the drugs most easily demonized.

The justifications run all over the map, but eventually distill down to one premise regarding addiction: that someone who develops a dependence on a particular substance no longer has true “free will” when it comes to the continued use of that substance. This is put forth to counterweigh the individual-rights argument that a user of recreational drugs does harm to no one but himself (and even the latter is not a given) and therefore there’s no moral justification for depriving him of his liberty. Banning the substance is supposed to protect members of society from succumbing to the mental slavery of addiction.

Why then, do we arrest people for possession?

If an addiction to Drug X makes someone not of sound mind, then criminally prosecuting him for seeking Drug X out is illogical.

But, if someone who chooses to buy Drug X has made a choice that is prosecutable, society is deeming him of sound mind, and that washes out the foundation of the no-free-will argument.

Addiction is a terrible hurdle to try and overcome, and not just with banned recreational drugs. We witness alcohol addicts, food addicts, gambling addicts, and nicotine addicts all around us. We restrict access to these (excepting food, of course) to adults, on the premise that adults are more capable of making rational decisions than minors, but we don’t incarcerate those who get addicted to any of them, because we accept that even under addictive pressures, people remain capable of exercising free will.

Thus, drug prohibitionists face a Catch-22 of their own making. If they insist on criminalization and incarceration over treatment, they affirm the consensual nature of the drugs they demand remain prohibited, and thus affirm that their notion that addiction overwrites free will is unfounded. If they insist that some drugs are so addictive they make people slaves, then they can’t rightly lock those slaves up for something beyond their control.

Either way, locking people up for drug use not only doesn’t work, it’s an indefensible response to the problem.


An addendum:

The big picture statistical realities of addiction are rarely contemplated in this debate. The large majority of users either not addicted or are fully functional members of society. Across my decades as an employer, I had countless users work for me – people who I knew partook of illicit drugs of every sort, but nevertheless managed to show up for work and do their jobs competently. Certainly, this isn’t always the case, and I’ve had employees who lost their jobs because of abuse/addiction (alcohol was a far bigger problem than opiates, for what it’s worth). In addition, addicts can and do become not-addicts all the time, and not just through active interdiction programs. Many just “age out” of that lifestyle.

The average cocaine addiction lasts four years, the average marijuana addiction lasts six years, and the average alcohol addiction is resolved within 15 years. Heroin addictions tend to last as long as alcoholism, but prescription opioid problems, on average, last five years.

Unfortunately, our habit of incarcerating users can not only stand in the way of that recovery, it saddles them with life-long criminal records that present life-long obstacles to improving their lot in life. That people routinely leave drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction behind is further evidence that it’s not the mental slavery that drug warriors feel they must save us all from risking, and further undermines the premise that we need to punish people for using substances they don’t approve of.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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