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Taking Drug Laws Seriously, II

Thomas S. Szasz

In my January column I presented my reasons for opposing the effort to combat the war on drugs by seeking to enact state referendums “legalizing medical marijuana.” The appeal of that approach to many libertarians is symptomatic of how wimpish some of them are about confronting statist medical, and especially psychiatric, principles and practices. Ted Galen Carpenter’s Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America is a recent example.

As far as fulfilling his stated aim—that is, presenting an account of the futility of the war on drugs in Latin America—Carpenter’s book is satisfactory. What is unsatisfactory—indeed, wholly unacceptable—is his proposal for ending the drug war.

Carpenter, a vice president at the Cato Institute, writes glowingly about George Soros and a few other prominent men who support initiatives that increase the power of the therapeutic state and enfeeble the individual: “They have promoted various measures that embody a strategy of ‘harm reduction’ and treatment, not jail.” Carpenter uncritically buys into the jargon of the psychiatric-therapeutic drug reformers. Can anyone be for “harm augmentation”? Can anyone still not know what drug reformers mean when they use the word “treatment”?

What does the term “harm reduction” mean? It means not punishing people for possessing hypodermic needles without a medical prescription. If libertarians believe in bodily self-ownership, then the problems that the “harm reducers” propose to remedy could not even arise. Worse, what does the term “treatment” mean in the context of the war on drugs? It means the naked use of force by doctors. Sally Satel—Yale University psychiatrist, “drug addiction treatment” expert, and the star “medical” witness for the drug warriors—proudly proclaims: “Force is the best medicine.” The Wall Street Journal considers this policy worthy of its editorial pages. Libertarians cannot say they have not been warned.

Carpenter enthuses that nine states have passed initiatives “making exceptions to the drug laws. . . . Instead [of jail], such nonviolent offenders would be directed into treatment programs.” Tourists receive “directions” to destinations of their own choice. Persons accused of drug offenses are coerced into psychiatric slavery.

Libertarians univocally assert that the prohibition against initiating violence is a cardinal principle of libertarianism. The peasant in Colombia who grows coca is not initiating violence. The politician in the District of Columbia who enacts laws authorizing the use of military aircraft to bomb and destroy the peasant’s crop does.

The person who buys and uses a drug—whether it’s alcohol or Zyprexa—is not initiating violence. The legislator who authorizes the use of force to prevent him from taking the drug he wants and to compel him to take the drug he does not want; the Supreme Court Justice who declares these laws “constitutional”; and the psychiatrist who incarcerates and forcibly drugs the “patient”—one and all initiate violence.

In my January column I noted that three of the most wealthy and powerful drug-law reformers who advocate “treatment” for drug-law violators have themselves violated the drug laws and have done so without having been punished for their offense or “treated” for their “disease.” Yet they advocate punishing others who violate the drug laws, propose that doctors do the punishing, and call this initiation of violence “treatment.”

In my books—Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers (1974) and Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market (1992)—I provided a detailed critique of Carpenter’s thesis many years before his book was published. Here I shall mention only a few of the absurdities that result from his ignoring the role of psychiatry in American society, and especially in the war on drugs.

Prohibiting Reading of Unapproved Books

From a political point of view, prohibiting the use of drugs not approved by the government and classifying the defiance of the ban as a disease is indistinguishable from prohibiting reading or writing books not approved by the government and classifying the defiance of the ban as a disease. I have said enough about this pernicious nonsense elsewhere and merely note it here.

Carpenter’s proposal to treat illicit drugs “as alcohol and tobacco are now treated” contradicts his proposal, earlier in the book, to coerce (“direct”) nonviolent offenders into “treatment programs.” We do not (at least yet) treat alcohol and tobacco users as either patients or criminals. The proposal would also create the absurd situation of heroin being available like cigarettes, but not morphine; of cocaine and marijuana being available without a prescription, but not Ritalin or Valium.

Another obvious difficulty remains to be considered. Who, in his right mind, would sell heroin or cocaine? Whether “on drugs” or not, some people kill themselves or others. In the present state of American legal and psychiatric practice, the seller of cocaine or heroin could expect to be sued by loved ones or injured parties, claiming that the drug caused the actor to kill himself or his victim. The person responsible for the suicide or murder would, of course, be called a “patient.” The country’s foremost psychiatric experts would line up to testify under oath that the “dangerous drug” caused the crime and had the actor not used it, he would not have killed himself or his victim. The seller would quickly be put out of business, if not in jail.

The combination of medical licensure laws, prescriptions laws, tort laws, and the war on drugs has closed and bolted America’s door to a free market in drugs. Today, the only way a person can buy or hope to buy the drugs he really wants to take is by breaking the law, transacting his business with a seller in the black market. That is exactly the way citizens of the Soviet Union had to buy the books they really wanted to read.

The two cardinal principles of the libertarian credo are the affirmation of the right to bodily and mental self-ownership and the prohibition against initiating violence. The person who buys a drug and puts it into his body—and the person who refuses to put a drug into his body that a psychiatrist prescribes—are exercising their elementary right to self-ownership. The person who sells a drug is not initiating violence.

Every physician and psychiatrist who does not explicitly repudiate our drug laws and participates in forcibly “treating” “addicts” and “drug abusers” is guilty of violating the basic human rights of free men and free women.

If libertarians do not stand up against the true “drug criminals”—the drug prohibitionists—who will?

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