An Argument For The Legalization Of Drugs

, Based On John Stuart Mills’ “Revised
Harm Principle” Essay, Research Paper

An Argument for the Legalization of Drugs, Based on John Stuart Mills’ “Revised

Harm Principle”

The question of whether or not to legalize certain drugs has been

debated for decades. Although opponents have thus far been successful in

preventing this, there are nonetheless a substantial number of people who

believe that legalization should be given a chance. Their arguments range from

the seeming ineffectiveness of current drug laws to the simple premise that the

government has no right to prohibit its citizens from using drugs if they

choose to do so. This essay will address the issue from the standpoint of John

Stuart Mills’ “Revised Harm Principle?,” which asserts that people should be

free to do what they want unless they threaten the vital interests (i.e.,

security or autonomy) of others.

Using Mills’ principle as a litmus test for this issue leads one to come

down on the side of legalization. Since Mills is concerned not with individual

rights, but with the consequences of one’s actions on other people, the question

becomes: Is drug use an action that, although performed by an individual,

threatens the vital interests of others? Using the example of a casual,

responsible drug user who is a contributing (or non-detracting) member of

society, it is clear that more harm is done to others if the user must resort to

illegal methods to obtain his drugs. The very act of buying drugs is

intrinsically illegal and carries the threat of establishing a criminal record

for the buyer. This can have a devastating effect on his family, his lifestyle,

and his career. The effects on society as a whole include more crowded jail

cells (prompting politicians to demand more jails be built), higher taxes to

support these jails, and the loss, or at least diminution, of a productive

citizen. In order to buy drugs illegally, the user may be forced to expose

himself to the fringes of the criminal world–something he would never do under

any other circumstances. If drugs were legalized, the criminal stigma would be

removed from their purchase, possession, and use. The government would collect

taxes on drug sales and, conversely, would not be spending millions of dollars

to stem the flow of illegal drugs. This increase in tax dollars could be put to

use in drug education and treatment programs for those individuals who are

unable to moderate their intake and subsequently become addicts. Then the

government would be intervening with its citizens’ lives in a benevolent manner

(and only when asked) rather than in a forceful, punitive way.

Many opponents to legalization point out that drug use leads to spousal

and child abuse, random criminal acts precipitated by the effects of drugs on a

user’s inhibitions, and crimes committed to support drug habits. This argument

is fundamentally defective because it addresses the abuse of drugs, which is not

the issue here. When an individual’s use of drugs leads him to harm others, it

becomes a behavioral problem. That is, the issue is no longer drugs, but the

behavior of the individual. If that behavior breaks a law, the individual

should be punished for that specific conduct–not for drug use. In its pure

form, drug use affects only the user, and the government is therefore acting

paternally when it regulates this behavior. This government regulation violates

Mills’ “Revised Harm Principle?” as blatantly as would regulations against

sunbathing or overeating or masturbation.

A Rebuttal

When using John Stuart Mills’ “Revised Harm Principle” to argue for the

legalization of drugs, it is necessary to examine that principle (that people

should be free to do what they want unless they threaten the vital interests,

i.e., security or autonomy, of others) and define its terms. Proponents of

legalization argue that drug use is a self-regarding act and has no effect on

anyone other than the user. But drug use affects every aspect of society: it

affects the security of nonusers, and it affects the autonomy of the user.

If drugs were made legal and easily obtainable in this country, the

government would be relinquishing its role as protector of those citizens who

are unable to control their excesses. These people surrender their autonomy to

drug addiction, thus “selling” themselves into a type of slavery. It is true

that the decriminalization of drugs would remove much of the stigma associated

with them, but this would not be a positive change. It is that stigma that

keeps many law-abiding citizens from using illegal drugs, and thus keeps the

number of addicts at a minimum. Also, if drugs were legalized, the government

would not be legally able to force addicts into treatment programs, and the

number of addicts would grow exponentially.

This scenario leads to the problem of security, both economic and

personal, for the vast number of Americans who probably would not become

addicted to drugs if they were legalized. Drug use would become as prolific as

alcohol consumption, and the number of societal and health-related problems

would be as numerous as those associated with alcohol. More working days would

be lost by people unable to control their drug habits, and insurance costs would

soar in order to cover expensive treatment required to rehabilitate addicts and

to deal with the health problems caused by addiction. These consequences would

have a direct effect on people other than the drug users, thus negating the

concept that drug use is a self-regarding act.

Regarding personal security, legalization advocates try to draw a line

between drug use and drug abuse. As it is impossible to predict who would use

drugs “responsibly” and who would succumb to addiction, the government has a

right and a duty to do everything in its powers to limit the availability of

harmful substances, even though the majority of its citizens might never make

the transition from use to abuse.

Proponents of legalization maintain that legalizing drugs would remove

government control from a private area of our lives. This is a faulty

assumption because the government’s role would only shift, not disappear. There

would be taxes, quality control, and distribution issues to deal with, and the

government would be at the helm. Therefore, Mills’ Principle would still be

“violated,” and the country would have a slew of new problems to deal with due

to the availability of legal drugs and lack of recourse with which to address



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