Taking Drug Laws Seriously
JANUARY 27, 2003 by THOMAS S. SZASZ
One of the referendums in the November election “would have put thousands of drug offenders [in Ohio] into treatment programs instead of prison.” The amendment was supported by many libertarians and friends of libertarians. Propaganda for it was generously funded by billionaires Peter Lewis, George Soros, and John Sperling. Voters rejected it by a ratio of 67 to 33 percent. I have long argued that medicalizing the law in general, and laws prohibiting drugs in particular, is stupid and wicked. I believe voters in Ohio did the right thing, but probably for the wrong reasons.
Libertarians believe that we own ourselves. Many nonlibertarians share that belief or give lip-service to it. If we accept the principle of self-ownership and the responsibilities that go with it, then it is none of the government’s business what ideas we put into our heads or what substances we put into our bodies.
In what follows, I address only those persons — whose numbers seem to be rapidly diminishing — who agree with my two basic premises. One is that violations of the law, such as speeding or possessing marijuana, are behaviors prohibited by lawmakers. The other is that diseases, such as asthma and melanoma, are biological processes, that happen to our bodies.
If we take these ideas seriously, it follows that it is the responsibility of certain agents of the state to punish individuals who break the law. The laws belong to the state; the punishments they prescribe are for its benefit, and hopefully the protection of the public, as when violent criminals are incarcerated. Similarly, it is the right of the sick person to seek or not seek treatment for his disease, as he deems best; the diseases that afflict him belong to him, and the treatment is for his benefit. By undermining the meaning of these elementary concepts and distinctions, the advocates of “treatment” for druglaw violators disorient our sense of justice and threaten our fundamental liberties.
The problem before us is simple. Selfstyled drug reformers complicate the “drug problem” because they want to make themselves look civic-minded, compassionate, or learned. And, most important, because they want to feel good about themselves.
Let us begin with the “problem.” People like to ingest various substances. People — sometimes different people, often the same people — like to prohibit individuals from ingesting what they want to ingest. Depending on time or place, the prohibited substance may be pork, alcohol, cigarette smoke, marijuana, Valium, or penicillin.
Ingesting a substance is an action. Some actions are deemed bad, are prohibited, and become crimes. In practice, however, a prohibited action is treated as a crime only when the actor is apprehended and prosecuted. This is why cynical but realistic observers of human affairs long ago concluded that criminal laws are aimed against the poor and the weak. The rich and the strong are likely to be able to violate the law with impunity or circumvent its restrictions, or both.
Since the three most wealthy and powerful drug-law reformers advocate “treatment” for drug-law violators, it is relevant to note that each has smoked marijuana with impunity and one does so currently. I conclude that they believe in punishing drug-law violators other than themselves and propose that the punishment be imposed by doctors and called “treatment.”
The Disease: Using an (Illegal) Drug or Getting Caught?
According to Time magazine (November 4, 2002), billionaire Peter Lewis, a retired insurance company executive, “spends half the year on a $16.5 million, 225 ft. yacht, where he smokes pot regularly.” He and his doctor think this a great improvement over his (excessive?) consumption of scotch.
George Soros, the billionaire financier, “wants to reform drug laws by replacing jail time with rehab [sic].” According to Time, Soros “has smoked pot but no longer does.”
John Sperling, the billionaire Cambridge-educated economist and professor-turned-entrepreneur/ founder of the University of Phoenix, smoked pot when he had cancer in the 1960s.
Here, then, is my simple question: For precisely what disease would these very rich former and present marijuana users have the less affluent marijuana users be “treated”?
Is the disease the use of the illegal drug per se? That cannot be. Lewis, Soros, and Sperling are highly intelligent men. Yet none, to my knowledge, has ever sought treatment for the dread disease that the most respected medical authorities in America call “drug addiction” or “substance abuse.” If the disease is not the use of the illegal drug, then it must consist in getting caught possessing or using it. That is the simple answer.
This makes preventing the disease very difficult. How many people can afford their own expensive yachts on which to smoke pot? How many people have billions with which to shield themselves from the stings of the law aimed at catching and imprisoning poor drug offenders?
Not surprisingly, none of the billionaires is willing to debate drug czar John Walters, who cogently observes that “you don’t hide behind money and refuse to talk and hire underlings and not stand up and speak for yourself.” Instead of engaging Walters — and his legion of supporters in medicine and psychiatry — the billionaires and their hired guns pontificate about the moral failings of their adversaries. “The government’s drugreform [sic] policy,” says Sperling, “is driven by a Fundamentalist Christian sense of morality that sees any of these illegal substances used as evil.” That may be true, but it does not justify turning drug use into a disease. Furthermore, the American people and the American government were more influenced by a Fundamentalist Christian sense of morality in 1902 than they are today; yet, in 1902, Americans could buy all the heroin they wanted from a Sears Roebuck catalogue.
Ethan Nadelmann, Soros’s drug guru, declares: “John [Walters] is a reactionary ideologue. It’s the broader battle of what we tell kids about life.” In an ideological war, it is reasonable for all the participants to be ideologues, and for ideologues on both sides to acknowledge it. Still, Nadelmann is partly right. The drug war is, inter alia, about “what we tell kids about life.” The drug prohibitionists tell them one set of lies, for example, that marijuana is dangerous, but Ritalin is not. The drug medicalizers tell them another set of lies, for example, that using an illegal drug is a disease like diabetes and that being imprisoned by psychiatrists is “treatment” like injecting oneself with insulin.
Anyone for telling kids — and adults, too — the truth?