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The Morality of Drug Controls

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We Americans regard freedom of speech and religion as fundamental rights. Until 1914, we also regarded the freedom of choosing our diets and drugs as fundamental rights. Obviously, this is no longer true today. What is behind this fateful moral and political transformation, which has resulted in the rejection, by the overwhelming majority of Americans, of their right to self-control over their diets and drugs? How could it have come about in view of the obvious parallels between the freedom to put things into one’s mind and its restriction by the state by means of censorship of the press, and the freedom to put things into one’s body and its restriction by the state by means of drug controls?

The answer to these questions lies basically in the fact that our society is therapeutic in much the same sense in which medieval Spanish society was theocratic. Just as the men and women living in a theocratic society did not believe in the separation of church and state but, on the contrary, fervently embraced their union, so we, living in a therapeutic society, do not believe in the separation of medicine and the state but fervently embrace their union. The censorship of drugs follows from the latter ideology as inexorably as the censorship of books followed from the former. That explains why liberals and conservatives — and people in that imaginary center as well — all favor drug controls. In fact, persons of all political and religious convictions (save libertarians) now favor drug controls.

Viewed as a political issue, drugs, books, and religious practices all present the same problem to a people and its rulers. The state, as the representative of a particular class or dominant ethic, may choose to embrace some drugs, some books, and some religious practices and reject the others as dangerous, depraved, demented, or devilish. Throughout history, such an arrangement has characterized most societies. Or the state, as the representative of a constitution ceremonializing the supremacy of individual choice over collective comfort, may ensure a free trade in drugs, books, and religious practices. Such an arrangement has traditionally characterized the United States. Its Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to freedom of religion and the press and it can with some justification be argued that it also implicitly guarantees the right to freedom of self-determination with respect to what we put into our bodies ….

The argument that people need the protection of the state from dangerous drugs but not from dangerous ideas is unpersuasive. No one has to ingest any drug he does not want, just as no one has to read a book he does not want. Insofar as the state assumes control over such matters, it can only be in order to subjugate its citizens — by protecting them from temptation, as befits children, and by preventing them from assuming self-determination over their lives, as befits an enslaved population ….

I believe that just as we regard freedom of speech and religion as fundamental rights, so should we also regard freedom of self-medication as a fundamental right; and that, instead of mendaciously opposing or mindlessly promoting illicit drugs, we should, paraphrasing Voltaire, make this maxim our rule: “I disapprove of what you take, but I will defend to the death your right to take it!”

Sooner or later we shall have to confront the basic moral dilemma underlying the so-called drug problem: Does a person have the right to take a drug, any drug, not because he needs it to cure an illness but because he wants to take it?

It is a fact that we Americans have a right to read a book — any book — not because we are uninformed and want to learn from it, not because a government-supported educational authority claims that it will be good for us, but simply because we want to read it and because the government — as our servant rather than our master — does not have the right to meddle in our private reading affairs. I believe that we also have a right to eat, drink, or inject a substance — any substance — not because we are sick and want it to cure us, nor because a government-supported medical authority claims that it will be good for us, but simply because we want to take it and because the government — as our servant rather than our master — does not have the right to meddle in our private dietary and drug affairs.

The First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom exemplifies this posture: Americans are not expected to look to the government to provide them with those religious beliefs and organizations that are good for them, while protecting them against those that are bad for them. Our system of drug controls exemplifies the opposite principle: Americans are expected to look to the government to provide them with those drugs and drug-dispensing organizations that are good for them, while protecting them from those that are bad for them. The results speak for themselves.

Sad to say, we Americans have collectively chosen to cast away our freedom to determine what we should eat, drink, or smoke. In this large and ever expanding area of our lives, we have rejected the principle that the state is our servant rather than our master. This proposition is painfully obvious when people plaintively insist that we need the government to protect us from the hazards of “dangerous” drugs. The demand for, and expectation of, governmental protection from what is, in effect, the temptation to take drugs is, in my opinion, emblematic of our collective belittling of ourselves as children unable to control themselves, and of our collective glorification of the state as our benevolent parent whose duty is to control its childlike subjects.

To be sure, drugs are potentially potent influences, for good or ill, on our bodies and our health. Hence, we need private voluntary associations — or also, some might argue, the government — to warn us of the dangers of heroin, salt, or a high-fat diet. But it is one thing for our would-be protectors to inform us of what they regard as dangerous substances, and it is quite another thing for them to punish us if we disagree with them or defy their wishes.

This is a condensation of his article which appeared in Dealing with Drugs, edited by Ronald Hamowy (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1987). Reprinted by permission.

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    Dr. Szasz is a noted psychiatrist and the author of "The Myth of Mental Illness", "Our Right to Drugs", and many other works. He is a Professor of Psychiatry at the State University of New York, Syracuse (Heath Science Center).