By Crispin Sartwell
The practical reasons to legalize drugs are familiar.
Drug violence in this country is largely the result of the black market, with its gunfights over
territory and supply. The cost of the war on drugs in tax dollars is extremely high, and even so
illegal drugs are widely, often easily, available.
Recent events in South America highlight other costs. The effort to blanket Colombia in herbicide is a nightmare not only
for the crops of small farmers and the economy of the region, but also for the health of the people.
And we propped up a corrupt and vicious regime in Peru for many years on the grounds that it was
helping us fight drugs.
I find the pragmatic arguments convincing. But they are not why I favor unconditional legalization of
all drugs. It is as simple as this: I do not acknowledge the right of anyone to tell me what I can or
cannot put into my body. Let me say that again. I do not acknowledge the right of anyone to tell
me what I can or cannot put into my body.
I decide what my one-year-old eats, and I try, with mixed success, to prevent her from swallowing money, dirt, and
dishwashing detergent. I wonder whether you think of yourself the way I think about my one-year-old. That is, I wonder whether, all things considered, you acknowledge the right of someone
to tell you what you can put into your body.
If you do, I wonder why, or perhaps how. If you don't, then I think you are obliged to favor
Now if you think that you can decide what to put into your body, but other people should not
be able to, I wonder who you think should be excluded. Black people? Poor people? Stupid
I do not use drugs, and I do not condone drug use. Two of my brothers have died in drug-related incidents; the two of us who survive are alive because we are in recovery from drug
addiction. I am raising five children, and I would prefer that they never try drugs at all.
But the basic moral insight that entails legalization is a matter completely separate from the
question of whether drugs are bad and dangerous. They are. And people should be told this in the
clearest, truest way possible. But then they must be left to make their own decisions.
The argument for abortion rights is that a woman should have control of her own body. The
counter-argument is that the fetus is not part of the woman's body. If you are pro-choice on the
grounds of a woman's right over her body, then you must favor drug legalization, and the case is
only clearer because there is not another body involved.
Does this mean you'll be shopping the heroin section of the Eckerd's, picking up your generic or brand-name horse and toss it into your basket with the Preparation H? Probably not. But the control of the most dangerous drugs must come from bottom up rather than top down.
A reasonable model is the way harcore pornography is controlled now. It's not illegal, and you can get it if you want it. But communities find ways to restrict access and exposure to it.
That partly has to do with my picture of addiction, both on the personal and collective levels.
Essentially, I believe that addiction is a matter of personality more than substance, and that if you
love an altered conscious state, you will eventually find a way to become addicted to something,
whether it's in the heroin aisle or not. So I don't think addiction rates would skyrocket with legalization.
And I have an epidemiological picture of how addiction spreads. We don't understand
very well how something like the heroin epidemic of the early seventies or the crack epidemic of
the eighties and nineties gets started, and we don't understand very well how it peters out. Efforts
to control supply have not had a great effect either way.
I will make one concession to what you are probably thinking of as common sense: there ought
to be restrictions on the purchase of drugs by minors. So perhaps the Bayer Acid should be kept
behind the counter.