Legalize Recreational Drugs

I suspect that most readers of The Beacon tend to favor personal freedoms to a sufficient degree that they will immediately agree with the title of this post.  If we want to live in a free country, freedom has to mean that we are free to make choices that others, including others in positions of authority, believe are bad choices.  We are not free if we are only allowed to choose options government believes are good for us.

The tremendous harm that the war on drugs has around the world is common knowledge.  It destabilizes and corrupts governments.  The governments in Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, Afghanistan, and many other places are corrupt and less functional because they have been pressured to adopt US drug policies.  I suspect that even libertarian anarchists would argue that the citizens of those countries would be better off without the corrupting influence of US drug laws than with them.  It has a similar corrupting effect in the US, as do all victimless crimes, although the US has not suffered as much as have many other countries forced to conform to our policies.

The war on drugs endangers innocent citizens because those involved in the drug trade are not protected by government, so they must arm themselves to protect their property and their business from law enforcement, and other private citizens.  The violence that accompanies illegal drugs is present because they are illegal, not because they are drugs.

Users themselves are placed in more danger, because there is less quality control in underground markets, and because there is a premium placed on creating more potent, and therefore more portable and concealable, products.

Another obvious drawback is that violating drug laws can land the user in prison.  This is obviously bad for the person who is imprisoned, but it is bad for everyone else too.  It marginalizes that individual, making it less likely the individual can find a good job, and more likely that after incarceration the individual will engage in criminal activity.  Everyone would be better off if we kept drug users out of prison.

So, why do we have these laws?  One reason is that some people believe that if  a certain behavior is undesirable (like using drugs), then it should be illegal.  Another more utilitarian reason is that drug laws may keep some people from becoming drug users.  If recreational drugs were legalized, some people who don’t use them now might start.

Let’s look at this argument more closely.  To summarize all of what I’ve said already, US drug laws are bad for just about everybody around the world.  They make governments more corrupt and make life more dangerous both in the US and abroad, and they impose potentially heavy costs on users.  The advantage is that it may keep people from becoming users.

If we want to live in a free country, this argument fails because the “advantage” amounts to taking away individual freedoms.  Creating a more totalitarian society is not an advantage.

Even if using recreational drugs is in some ways harmful to the drug user, in a free country it should be up to the potential user to weigh the costs and benefits, not the government.

In an attempt to protect some people from making choices that others might view as harmful, we are inflicting harm on everyone else around the world.

Freedom is meaningless unless people have the freedom to make poor choices.  If we apply that principle to our drug laws, recreational drugs will be legalized, and the harm that is done by our drug laws to innocent people all over the world will be eliminated.

Eliminating harm is good.  Promoting individual freedom furthers the American values upon which this country was founded.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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