Introduction to OUR RIGHT TO DRUGS, The Case for a Free Market

by Thomas Szasz


I never write on any subject unless I believe the opinion of those who have the ear of the public to be mistaken, and this involves as a necessary consequence that every book I write runs counter to the men who are in possession of the field. ........Samuel Butler

For good or ill, this has been true as well of the books I have written, this one included. In the present case, it is because the contemporary debate on drugs, drug abuse, and drug legalization is a monument to our collective ignorance and eagerness to forget. From the founding of the American Colonies until the Civil War, marijuana was an important cash crop, yielding the raw materials needed for the production of canvas, clothing, and rope. The colonists, including George Washington, grew marijuana. Of course that is not what they called it. They called it "hemp," just as they called their Negro slaves "three-fifths Persons." Though few people realize that the Constitution so stamps some of the people who built our country, at least those who do realize it understand how such fictitiously fractional persons became real, full-fledged human beings. But how many people know that hemp, coca, and the opium poppy are ordinary plants, understand how they became transformed into dreaded "dangerous drugs," and realize that in losing our rights to them we have surrendered some of our most basic rights to property?

This book, then, is about rights, responsibilities, the law, and the Constitution -- not as abstractions in philosophical treatises or legal briefs, but as the practical realities of our daily lives. Specifically, it is about our laws and lawlessness concerning the substances we choose to call "drugs."

Casting a ballot is an important act, emblematic of our role as citizens. But eating and drinking are much more important acts. If given a choice between the freedom to choose what to ingest and what politician to vote for, few if any would pick the latter. Indeed, why would anyone be so foolish as to sell his natural birthright to consume what he chooses in return for the mess of pottage of being allowed to register his preference for a political candidate? Yet this is precisely the bargain we the American people have made with our government: more useless voting rights in exchange for fewer critical personal rights. The result is that we consider the fiction of self-government a blessed political right, and the reality of self-medication an accursed medical malady.

In 1890, less than half of adult Americans had the right to vote. Since then, one class of previously ineligible persons after another has been granted the franchise. Not only blacks and women, as they deserved, but also others with questionable claims to that privilege -- for example, persons unable to speak or read English (or read and write any language). During this period, every one of us -- regardless of age, education, or competence -- has been deprived of his right to substances the government decides to call "dangerous drugs."

Yet, ironically, most Americans labor under the mistaken belief that they now enjoy many rights previously available only to a few (partially true only for blacks and women), and remain utterly unaware of the rights they have lost. Moreover, having become used to living in a society that wages a relentless War on Drugs, we have also lost the vocabulary in which to properly articulate and analyze the disastrous social consequences of our own political-economic behavior vis-a-vis drugs. Mesmerized by the mortal dangers of fictitious new diseases such as "chemical dependency" and "substance abuse," we have become diverted from the political perils of our totalitarian-therapeutic efforts at collective self-protection.

Long ago, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), a French political-economic thinker and pioneer free marketeer, warned against the dangers of precisely such folly. "Protection," he wrote, "concentrates at a single point the good that it does, while the harm that it inflicts is diffused over a wide area. The good is apparent to the outer eye; the harm reveals itself only to the inner eye of the mind."

Precisely wherein lies our drug problem? I submit it lies mainly in the fact that most of the drugs we want are ones we cannot legally make, sell, or buy. Why can we not do these things? Because the drugs we want are literally illegal, their possession constituting a criminal offense (for example, heroin and marijuana); or because they are medically illegal, requiring a physician's prescription (for example, steroids and Valium).

In short, we have tried to solve our drug problem by prohibiting the "problem" drugs; by imprisoning the persons who make, sell, or use such drugs; by defining the use of such drugs as diseases; and by coercing drug users to undergo treatment (coercion being necessary because drug users want drugs, not treatment). None of these measures has worked. Some suspect that these measures have aggravated the problem. I am sure of it. They have had to -- because our concept of the nature of the problem is mistaken, our methods of responding to it are coercive, and the language in which we speak about it is misleading. I submit that making, selling, and using drugs are actions, not diseases. Authorities can go far in maintaining the illusion that (ab)using a drug is a disease, but an illusion it remains.

Moreover, the complex set of personal behaviors and social transactions we call "the drug problem" does not, in the literal sense, constitute a problem susceptible to a solution. Arithmetical problems have solutions. Social problems do not. (The solution of an arithmetical problem does not, ipso facto, create another arithmetical problem, but the solution of every social problem inexorably creates a new set of social problems.) It is a grievous mistake to conceptualize certain drugs as a "dangerous enemy" we must attack and eliminate, instead of accepting them as potentially helpful as well as harmful substances, and learning to cope with them competently.

Why do we want drugs? Basically, for the same reasons we want other goods. We want drugs to relieve our pains, cure our diseases, enhance our endurance, change our moods, put us to sleep, or simply make us feel better -- just as we want bicycles and cars, trucks and tractors, ladders and chain saws, skis and hang gliders, to make our lives more productive and more pleasant. Each year, tens of thousands of people are injured and killed as a result of accidents associated with the use of such artifacts. Why do we not speak of "ski abuse" or a "chain saw problem"? Because we expect people who use such equipment to familiarize themselves with their use, and avoid injuring themselves or others. If they hurt themselves, we assume they did so accidentally and we try to heal their injuries. If they hurt others negligently, we punish them by both civil and criminal sanctions.

These, in brief, are the means by which we try to adapt to -- rather than solve -- the problems presented by potentially dangerous devices in our environment. However, after generations of living under medical tutelage that provides us with protection (albeit illusory) against dangerous drugs, we have failed to cultivate the self-reliance and self-discipline we must possess as competent adults surrounded by the fruits of our pharmacological-technological age. Indeed, as I shall show throughout this book, our medical-statist policies with respect to drugs closely resemble the Soviets' economic-statist policies with respect to consumer goods. After a protracted war on self-medication, we are thus mired in a mess that is its direct result -- just as after a protracted war on private property, the people in the Soviet Union are mired in a mess that is its direct result.

My thesis is that what we call "the drug problem" is a complex set of interrelated phenomena that are the products of personal temptation, choice, and responsibility, combined with a set of laws and social policies generated by our reluctance to face this fad in a forthright manner. If that is false, then nearly everything in this book is false. But if it is true, then nearly everything the American government, American law, American medicine, the American media, and the majority of the American people now think and do about drugs is a colossal and costly mistake, injurious to innocent Americans and foreigners, and self-destructive to the nation itself. For if the desire to read Ulysses cannot be cured with an anti-Ulysses pili, then neither can the desire to use alcohol, heroin, or any other drug or food be cured by counterdrugs (for example, Antabuse versus alcohol, methadone versus heroin) or so-called drug treatment programs (which are coercions masquerading as cures).

Unlike most criticisms of the War on Drugs, which are based on pharmacological, prudential, or therapeutic arguments, mine is based on political-philosophical considerations. I shall argue the following:

  1. The right to chew or smoke a plant that grows wild in nature, such as hemp (marijuana), is anterior to and more basic than the fight to vote.

  2. A limited government, such as that of the United States, lacks the political legitimacy to deprive competent adults of the right to use whatever substances they choose.

  3. The constraints on the power of the federal government, as laid down in the Constitution, have been eroded by a monopolistic medical profession administering a system of prescription laws that have, in effect, removed most of the drugs people want from the free market.

  4. Hence it is futile to debate whether the War on Drugs should be escalated or de-escalated, without first coming to grips with the popular, medical, and political mind-set concerning the trade in drugs generated by nearly a century of drug prohibitions.

I am familiar with recent essays arguing the impracticality of drug legalization. I share that view. The idea of selling cocaine as we do cucumbers while preserving our prescription laws restricting the sale of peftidlin is obviously absurd. But this proves only that unless we are willing to come to grips with the profoundly paternalistic implications and perilous anti-market consequences of prescription laws, which I discuss in this book (especially Chapter 7), we are doomed to impotence vis-a-vis our so-called drug problem. "The collectivist," warned A. V. Dicey in 1914, the year the first law protecting us from dangerous drugs was enacted, "never holds a stronger position than when he advocates the enforcement of the best ascertained laws of health."

The result of our protracted drug-protectionist policy is that we now find it impossible to re-legalize drugs -- we lack both the popular will for it and the requisite legal-political infrastructure to support it. We long ago decided that it is morally wrong to treat drugs (especially foreign, plant-derived drugs) as a commodity. If we are satisfied with that state of affairs and its consequences, so be it. But I believe we ought to consider the possibility that a free market in drugs is not only imaginable in principle, but, given the necessary personal motivation of a people, is just as practical and beneficial as is a free market in other goods. Accordingly, I support a free market in drugs not because I think it is --at this moment, in the United States -- a practical policy, but because I believe it is right and because I believe that -- in the long run, in the United States -- the right policy may also be the practical policy.