The Anti-Drug Argument for Legalization


In an early 2011 episode of the libertarian TV show “Stossel,” John Stossel debated Ann Coulter about ending the War on Drugs. At one point Coulter exclaimed in a tone of shocked outrage that Stossel could not possibly be serious in saying that legalization would lead to a decrease in drug abuse. Here I want to argue precisely that point.

It is possible for someone to believe that nobody should ever do drugs but also to support the libertarian proposal for ending the Drug War and legalizing all recreational drugs. The two positions are fully consistent, because both legalization and the end to widespread drug addiction will flow naturally from a psychological and philosophical shift toward a culture of more personal responsibility and away from a culture of irresponsibility. The cause of most drug addiction can be traced to irresponsibility, and irresponsibility is the psychological precondition of the welfare state. This explains why the drug subculture is dominated by the Left. We libertarians can silence some of our most vocal opponents if we undermine the alliance between the anti-drugs movement and the statist War on Drugs. This essay is one step toward achieving that goal.

I hate “recreational” drugs, and I do not think that anyone should use them. But I firmly believe that recreational drugs of every type should be legalized. I could argue that drug use is a victimless crime, or that human beings own their own bodies and have the right to do to themselves whatever they wish. I could argue that the War on Drugs is racist because it targets substances commonly used by members of racial minorities. But such arguments have been made many times before. Libertarian thinktanks such as the Cato Institute have already produced ample empirical evidence showing that legalization does not correlate with drug abuse. I have no need to repeat this evidence. My argument is different. I am going to argue that legalization, if accompanied by a psychological and philosophical shift towards a culture of personal responsibility, would lead to a long-term widespread decrease in drug abuse.

If the foes of drug use are so sure that it is an evil, then why are they so afraid of their inability to persuade consenting adults to abstain from drugs?

Legalization might cause a temporary spike in drug use, as curious Americans would be tempted to experiment. Then again, there might not be a major spike, because despite the War on Drugs, most Americans have already experimented. But even if there were a spike it would not last long. The rational, intelligent American public would soon learn, or reaffirm its current conviction, that drug use is self-destructive and stupid. Indeed, if the foes of drug use are so sure that it is an evil, then why are they so afraid of their inability to persuade consenting adults to abstain from drugs? The truth, of course, is that their arguments are too obvious to be necessary for rational people. Human goodness and happiness depend upon reasoning and reason’s ability to perceive reality accurately; mind-altering drugs impede this process.

I have seen firsthand how drugs can ruin lives and how difficult it can be to quit once someone becomes addicted. I will proudly state that within the past two years I have been able to quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Without providing any detailed horror-story anecdotes, I think that it is widely known that alcohol makes people stupid and aggressive, that cigarettes are a deadly, lung-destroying poison, that drugs cause people to lose their grip on reality, and that hard drugs are physically self-destructive and can ruin lives in any number of ways. There can be some debate about whether or not moderate, infrequent recreational drug use is a bad thing (although I think that it is), but there is no question that habitual drug abuse, in other words drug addiction, is both physically and psychologically poisonous. Drugs are a mess, and every sane person knows it.

The question, for me and other drug-haters, is: how to get people to stop using drugs? One possible approach is to outlaw them. This policy has undeniably failed, as drug use of every kind is rampant, despite the government’s best efforts to eliminate it. But if you can’t force people not to do drugs, then what can you do?

A more sophisticated and refined approach would look at the reasons why people choose to do drugs, and would fight the choice to use drugs at its source. People become drug addicts because they make a choice to be weak-willed, lazy, and irresponsible. A drug, after all, is a substance that functions by going between you and reality, so that your experience of reality becomes more pleasant than it would have been sober. The drug does not change reality; it merely changes the chemicals in your brain. It is undeniable that sober reality is the reality that objectively exists in the physical world, and drug-experienced reality is a fictional reality which does not actually exist. Therefore, in a sense, drugs are the ultimate subjectivism and solipsism, in which you choose to cope with the problems in your life not by facing reality soberly and seeking to improve it, but by choosing to change your brain so that you will not feel the pain of your problems any more, so that you won’t have to be aware of what is really going on. The tremendous appeal of drugs is their usefulness for escapism.

I suspect that addiction is usually more psychological than physical, because every human being has the power to quit doing drugs at any time if he makes a genuine choice to do so. Although there are many drugs that have withdrawal symptoms of sickness and agony, rare indeed is the drug that will actually kill you if you stop abusing it, and sobriety is beneficial to one’s health. Addiction comes from the mind, not from the body. What, then, is the nature of an addiction?

The cause of most drug addiction is pain and suffering. A drug addiction is merely a manifestation of the sadness inherent in the condition of being human. Pleasure, wealth, friendship, love, romance, and happiness are not given to humans; we have to work for them. When we make mistakes we lose what we want. The fight to be happy is difficult and messy and full of misery and horror. A person can, however, cope with the human condition responsibly by choosing to face and try to improve reality. This means that he assumes responsibility for both success and failure; he accepts the rewards for good choices and the punishments for bad ones. Alternatively a person can choose the irresponsible choice of abandoning reality, not trying to make things better, and trying to hide from or escape from sorrow.

The essence of irresponsibility is seeking to break the causal connection between the choices you make and what happens in your life. Drugs are addictive because they are uniquely useful for living life irresponsibly. They kill your awareness of your life and blind you to the punishments for your choices. Drugs are as popular as they are because everyone experiences the pain of the problems in life. But this pain evolved as nature’s way of motivating people to solve their problems.

The problem with addiction is not merely that you use the drug constantly and it damages your physical health. It is that a human being becomes ethical by thinking and making choices, and drugs make the drug user’s choices for him or her. The essence of personal responsibility is taking responsibility for your choices and not easy shortcuts around doing the work that is necessary in order to be happy. Drug addiction is fundamentally irresponsible, not merely because it is a lazy way to cope with problems, and not merely because it impairs the ability to choose, but because it is easy and tempting for drug users to blame their actions on the drug, shifting causation away from themselves. That is the core of irresponsibility.

Government acts upon the body politic like a drug, blinding the people to reality.

The issue of whether a person chooses to live responsibly or irresponsibly is at the heart not only of the issue of drug addiction, but also the issue of which form of government to choose. Drug use is a personal manifestation of irresponsibility, but a political manifestation of irresponsibility is socialism. An irresponsible government will hide from society’s problems and use any quick-fix snake oil it can imagine to make people think that it is doing the right thing, without ever actually addressing the causes of society’s problems and trying to fix them. The irresponsible person blames his problems on something else and looks to external saviors to solve his problems instead of taking responsibility and solving his problems himself. The modern-liberal voter looks to government to make his choices for him and give him wealth instead of creating wealth for himself. Government, in short, acts upon the body politic like a drug, blinding the people to reality. The more we rely upon government to live our lives for us, the more we lose control and the farther we fall from the condition of being able to solve our own problems.

Because drug abuse and big government are two manifestations of the same irresponsible attitude towards life, it is no coincidence that the drug culture is permeated by the modern-liberal or socialist Left. On the other hand, a culture of personal responsibility, such as is embodied by the libertarian political philosophy, would militate against the problem of drug addiction.

Personal responsibility is inconsistent with using government to force people to behave ethically regarding activity that does no violence to others. We libertarians must make a stand for legalization, but we should fight this battle not for the sake of drug addicts, but for freedom as a matter of principle, supported by rational arguments for individual responsibility.

Many drug foes seems incapable of grasping the notion that you can persuade a reasoning mind to choose sobriety freely. Perhaps this is because the anti-drug interest groups have shown not one iota of understanding of how to talk to people about drugs. Instead of running anti-drug ad campaigns that treat people like rational adults, the anti-drug groups (usually in conjunction with government agencies) ads designed to scare or guilt-trip people into quitting drugs. People who have chosen to use drugs as a way to cope with reality are already more afraid of facing reality than they are of death, and they have chosen to be irresponsible. So appealing to the fear of death and the guilt of letting down your loved ones is a silly strategy. A manipulative emotional trick never has the same impact as persuasive reasoning. The proper anti-drugs approach is to convince people rationally.

Happy people are far more difficult to rule than sad, depressed, miserable people with drug-addled brains.

It is notable that when a special interest group wants people to behave in a certain way, but lacks any well-reasoned arguments, it petitions government to pass a law to coercive obedience. Some fools actually may believe that people know better than to do drugs but are too weak to resist temptation and therefore need the government to force them to choose sobriety. Only weaklings and cowards would buy this argument. The government has no special knowledge of the dangers of drugs, no knowledge that the American people lack, nor does it possess a magic wand to make drugs any less appealing. The most effective anti-drug strategy is rational persuasion in a free, legalized society.

When the government forces you to do something that you aren’t persuaded you should do, it is treating you like a child — and the condition of being a child is precisely the condition of not assuming responsibility for yourself, the very condition that leads to drug addiction in the first place. Legalization would send a message that we as a people need to take responsibility for our own choices. It is the best thing the government could do to combat drugs. Rampant drug abuse and the War on Drugs would both be killed by a cultural shift towards personal responsibility. Happy people are far more difficult to rule than sad, depressed, miserable people with drug-addled brains. If society changes so that people are happier and more satisfied with their lives, the power of the government will be vastly curtailed.

If the socialists and the anti-drug warriors actually wanted to solve the drug problem, marijuana would be legal today. Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol. It is the opposite of a gateway drug; it is merely a convenient means of experimentation for curious people making the transition from child to adult. Over the long term, legalized pot would decrease hard drug use. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on the state to do the rational thing and legalize marijuana.

At this juncture, the libertarian movement should try to have it both ways: we have already gained significant popularity by appealing to drug users who want drugs to be legalized, but we could also gain a loyal following among drug haters. We should preach that our path of social and political self-responsibility is the way best suited to sober, clear-headed, rational adults. We can thereby attract to our ranks many of the people whose lives have been ruined by drugs and who are looking desperately for an escape from the drug-induced carnage. But because responsible adults are more likely to support free market capitalism than people who are irresponsible and immature, I think that libertarianism can only triumph with the support of sober voters. One might wonder why the many voters who abuse illegal drugs do not swarm the polls and vote libertarian politicians into elected office. My explanation is simple: voters with drug-addled brains are too lazy and irresponsible to become political activists, even though they stand to gain the most from legalization.

Right now the anti-drug, anti-legalization lobby is a powerful foe of libertarianism. The anti-drug activists are passionate and fanatical because they understand the evil of drugs and take inspiration from the virtue of sobriety. But so do I, and my hatred of drug abuse does not make me think that the horrors of the Drug War are in any way justified. If we could chip away at the link between the anti-drug movement and the anti-legalization movement, libertarianism would lose some of its most zealous opponents (perhaps including Ann Coulter and conservatives like her). We should try to persuade some of the anti-drug advocates to abandon the prohibitionists and back legalization as the clever solution to America’s drug addiction problem.

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As an undergraduate, my friends and I would frequently drink to excess. It was mostly fun and somewhat exhilarating. It was only once I turned 21 that I realized that the thrilling element had been due to the fact that it was illegal. What had been thrilling was defying those claiming authority over me. With that element gone, it wasn't so exciting.

Even more importantly, upon turning 21 I suddenly felt a weight that had never burdened me before--the weight of responsibility. Before I was 21, the government had told me I was not allowed to drink, and that it would take measures to prevent me from drinking. Every time I drank, I was eluding the control of the powerful State, which (often literally) sent its agents out to forcibly stop people like me and my friends. And because the State had claimed the power to control my drinking, I had felt that it was the responsibility of the State when it failed to do so. After all, with power comes responsibility, and the power to make this decision had been taken from me by the State. Once I was 21 and it was clearly my responsibility to decide when and how much to drink, I found myself drinking less often and more in moderation.

Now I'm all grown up and have children of my own. And I find that when I try to force them to do things for their own good, like brush their teeth or avoid gorging themselves on candy, it is often a losing battle. It becomes a battle for control. They naturally resist being told what to do. When I tell them explicitly that this is their life and they are going to have to suffer the consequences for any foolish decisions, they often (though not always) make the wise choice.


There is a prison-industrial complex in America. We are the number one jailer in the world. Pretty good for the land of liberty, the land of the free. The P-IC supports tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs. The so-called war on drugs was the major factor for bringing the P-IC into being. The P-IC will not go down easily. Those who benefit from all the non-violent, non-larcenous, consensual adult drug convicts will kick and scream and bite in their attempt to keep the prisons full and keep their paychecks coming.

Russell Hasan

I would like to briefly reply to the comments to my essay posted by Jon Harrison and Fred Mora. I am flattered that two intelligent people took the time to craft thoughtful commentary in response to my essay, but I feel as though I may have been misinterpreted. Although I did harp on my hatred of drugs, the point of the article was that even if drugs are evil this does not mean that we should support the War on Drugs. I believe that the War on Drugs should be immediately and totally abolished, for many of the reasons that Mr. Harrison mentions. I fully agree that drug use is a personal decision that the state has no business regulating, but I have every right to my "sanctimony" because I find it obvious and rational that drug abuse ruins lives. The whole point of the essay is that if drug foes can formulate a persuasive rational argument as to why drug abuse is evil then legalization will not necessarily cause a spike in drug abuse, if most Americans are rational, logical people--which is a factual question that we can only answer by seeing what happens once the War on Drugs ends. I believe that rational persuasion is a superior alternative to the War on Drugs as a strategy for decreasing drug abuse, and I think that good, ethical people should want drug abuse to decrease. And certainly I don't think that car accidents or health insurance costs come anywhere close to the horror caused by the War on Drugs. In conclusion, this piece was intended to be anti-Drug War, not pro-Drug War.

Jon Harrison

My compliments to Mr. Hasan for his courteous and thoughtful reply to my comment.

I do realize that you are arguing in favor of legalization. I'm not going to revisit my original critique, mainly because I'm catching a cold and should be in bed working to get my wife and daughter to do my chores and otherwise take care of me. But I will address your reply briefly. I can agree that drug use ruins some lives. Indeed, I have in the past argued that methamphetamine and crack cocaine should remain illegal, simply because they are so addictive and so destructive to the physical and mental health of the people who use them. I realize that this puts me in the position of straddling the issue, at least to an extent, but there it is.

I disagree with your postulate that most Americans (or humans of any nationality) are rational, logical beings. Whether one observes day-to-day existence or the sweep of human history, it's quite clear that rationality and logic are the exception and not the rule. To base an argument -- and particularly one concerning so emotion-laden a topic as drugs -- on human rationality seems utterly foolish to me. Drugs should be legalized because the harm criminalization has done to society far exceeds the harm drug use imposes on us. Mark me down as a shallow utilitarian if you like, but I say without hesitation that legalizing drugs would be a boon to those of us (the majority) who either refrain from using, or are able to use without harming ourselves or others. For the minority who cannot handle drugs (I include alcohol here), there is always AA and other private organizations that are prepared to help. Or, if absolutely necessary (for the DUI offender, for example), there's prison. Those who will destroy themselves by abusing drugs are not going to be saved by criminalizing their substance (s) of choice. That's been proven already under the current criminalization regime.

And this brings me back to my original comment. It's clear that you're an educated and intelligent person. But in my opinion you don't look as deeply as you should at the issues you decide to write about. As a result your arguments and conclusions are more facile than persuasive. And that's why I said an editor needs to break out the blue pencil and make you first, rethink, and then rewrite.


One thing I've never heard discussed by anyone is the idea of a 5 or 10 year moratorium on the drug war to try and prove one way or the other what the outcome would actually be. I think at least 5 years would be necessary to allow trends and patterns to develop.

If at the end of the 5 year (or however long) period, if it wasn't working out, either all drugs could be outlawed again, or maybe just certain ones. (I honestly believe if marijuana were to be legalized, the consumption of alcohol would go down, along with many of the problems associated with drinking.)

There are only two things we know for absolutely certain. First is that prohibition has never worked and never will. Second is that this idea will never be allowed to be tested. The drug war is the government's most effective excuse to look under our car seats and in our glove boxes and under our beds and in our dresser drawers and...adnauseum.

Jim Henshaw

These comments do not seem to mesh:

"I hate “recreational” drugs, and I do not think that anyone should use them ... I have seen firsthand how drugs can ruin lives and how difficult it can be to quit once someone becomes addicted. I will proudly state that within the past two years I have been able to quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes."

Hmmm, not really, it seems like you like drugs a bit more than is good for you, and since you personally can't handle certain drugs without them causing unwanted consequences, you have projected those feelings upon others who, unlike you, can have a single drink in a social setting or a toke of weed and have their life enhanced by the social experience.

I mean, it is good that you don't support using the brute blunt force of government agents armed with guns to stop this perceived evil, but I would argue that for the vast majority of Americans, these can be beneficial and not evil, and only a minority can't handle them. I would hope that you would perhaps consider this possibility and temper the somewhat aggressive condemnation of what can be mild, fun, harmless acts.

Jon Harrison

Both Hasan and Mora seem to take it as a given that legalization would lead to increased usage. I have to wonder who out there is waiting for legalization before they start using drugs. I can't believe there are many people who are dying to use drugs but are deterred by the possible legal consequences.

Mora raises the matter of increased costs that would be borne by society as a result of legalization, without putting enough emphasis on the far greater costs society now bears under criminalization. There is, for example, a sizable dollar cost to support the organs of the state that carry on the War on Drugs. Drug crime, of course, costs society even more in dollar terms (and it kills people, too). Personal freedom suffers on two fronts: 1) the government decides what we can and cannot ingest; 2) increased police surveillance and intervention occur in the lives of users and non-users alike. Additionally, we have the matter of extra-judicial seizure of property from people who are arrested but not convicted of drug crimes, a shocking practice in a supposedly free society.

I'm also not particularly taken with the attitude both writers adopt toward drug users. The sanctimony is out of place in a libertarian blog, in my opinion. The main harm caused by addicts is to themselves. The harm they impose on society at large is almost entirely the result of the high cost of drugs. The price of drugs would plummet under legalization, making addicts no more dangerous to the rest of us than drinkers of alcohol. Admittedly, we would still be endangered by drug and alcohol abusers, particularly on the roads. But that could be remedied by ramping up the penalties for DUI. In any case, crime rates would be slashed, and state interference in our persoanl lives diminished, under legalization.

Whether an adult uses drugs or not is a personal decision, and libertarians should think twice and thrice before uttering blanket pejoratives on the matter.

I'm going to stop here, but there are problems with this piece, at least in my view. Some statements are presented as fact without supporting evidence. Unwarranted assumptions are made. An editor needs to get out the blue pencil and help Mr. Hasan craft pieces that compel our attention.

Fred Mora

Hi Jon,

Legal access to drugs would encourage more young people to try them. This is confirmed by the past experience of France, the Netherlands and Spain. Also, see the latest City Journal where J. Q. Wilson cites a study showing that 10% of 12th graders admitting trying cocaine in 1998, vs. 5.5% in 2010, in spite of cheaper, more abundant coke in the US. The difference, they say, is strong deterrence: cocaine sends you to jail.

No rational discourse on drug legalization can be complete without anticipating what happens when the War on Drugs finally stops. Failure to do so would just create fodder for the prohibitionists. This is not sanctimony, this is joyous pessimism, a brand of gritty realism that accepts mankind and the world as it is and refuses ideologies that want to "fix" them.

Jon Harrison

Joyous pessimism? That's a term I can't quite get my hands on, Fred. But no matter. I'd need to see a lot more on the European experiences you reference; what you've provided is anecdotal at best. I haven't seen the study in the City Journal, but I can't see how it proves anything. Penalties for cocaine use didn't change between 1998 and 2010, so the decrease in usage must have some other cause (assuming the study is correct). Maybe more kids had money to spend for cocaine in prosperous 1998, whereas in 2010, during the Great Recession, they had less money for drugs.

Cocaine was legal until 1914. Marijuana was legal until 1937. Were there more cocaine and marijuana users per 1,000 of population when these substances were legal and easily obtained? It's hard to say with cocaine, because before criminalization the drug was put into so many products. But if we restrict ourselves to those users who simply snort or inject the drug, I'm pretty sure we have a much higher rate of cocaine use now than we had before 1914. And I'm certain that the rate of cannabis usage per 1,000 of population is much higher today than it was before 1937.

Perhaps another time we can discuss whether the ingestion of drugs like marijuana and cocaine is truly a major problem for most drug takers. But for now, I'd like to stick to whether legalization would actually lead to more widespread drug use. You've provided nothing except a passing reference to "past experience" (no specifics) in some European countries, whereas I can point to a definite increase in drug use in the U.S. since criminalization.

I can imagine a brief spike in drug experimentation immediately following legalization, and I can see otherwise drug-free individuals snorting some coke or smoking some weed as they embark on a wild weekend in Amsterdam or Las Vegas, but the bottom line is we have no solid evidence that indicates legalization will lead to a jump in addiction or long-term drug use. A major aspect of your and Hasan's argument is that this will happen if we legalize drugs. If you're going to publish something on the topic and you want readers to take it seriously, you have to provide real evidence to back up your arguments. You guys haven't done that, at least not yet.

Fred Mora

Interesting. I had written a somewhat similar article, but Stephen Cox hasn't published it. I believe yours is better.

I agree with your position on the war on drugs and also with your hatred for psychoactive substance. You nicely articulate the irresponsibility of junkies.

My article dealt mainly with the consequences of the usage spike we both foresee would occur after a drug legalization. Drawing from the experience of European countries who stopped criminalizing MJ and cannabis, I ventured that the post-legalization years would see a number of horrifying accidents, especially car accidents, linked to drug use. In Europe, the combination of cannabis and alcohol noticeably raises road fatalities. This, I hypothesize, would create a wave of genuine horror that would trigger a backlash and potentially bring back the war on drugs. I'd like to read your take on the subject.

Also, while the Federal gummint has no Constitutional basis to forbid drugs, the states might decide to ban some or all drugs, and it's within their rights. Don't like the Utah ban on anything stronger than coffee? Move to California, where a joint is mandatory before each policy meeting (that explains so much, right?)

Finally, some writers suggested that Obama could win the 2012 elections by legalizing drugs. I believe that most of the Leftists that are hardcore enough to still vote Obama would be too high to vote, thus defeating the maneuver, but he's welcome to try.

One caveat: Due to the overlap between drug users and nanny-state voters, it is obvious that health insurance companies would be soon forced to cover pathologies brought by long-term drug abuse (cardiac damage for cocaine or meth, for example). Libertarians who don't care if someone snorts coke would still be forced to pay a higher premium to cover drug abusers' healthcare. The irresponsibility you denounce would therefore be spread to the general public. Any legalization law would also have to contain strong language against this forcible socialization of irresponsibility.

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