On the Morality of: Recreational Drug Use

Today’s post on atheist morality concerns the use of natural and artificial pharmaceuticals for pleasure. This practice may be nearly as old as humanity – three-thousand-year-old Andean mummies have been found to contain traces of coca, and the brewing of beer may date back to the Stone Age. Today, the legality of such substances varies widely across the world: some religious sects consider psychoactive drugs to be a sacrament, while other religions, such as Islam, ban them altogether.

Rather than rely on these reasonless edicts presented as absolute dogma, we can turn to the moral system of universal utilitarianism, which is a means for arriving at objective ethical decisions founded on human happiness. Given this basis, one of the most important moral principles of UU is self-determination. No one other than you yourself can speak with authority about what makes you happy, and therefore we should permit individuals the maximum freedom to choose for ourselves and pursue our own course in life, so long as those choices do not cause others to suffer or infringe on their equal right to choose for themselves. Just because we disapprove of another person’s choices is utterly insufficient grounds to forbid them from choosing.

That being the case, I believe that the general principle which UU dictates is that we should permit people to seek happiness in whatever way seems best to them, including the use of recreational drugs if they desire. Granted, some drugs can be addictive; nevertheless, the initial choice to take them, if made by a mature and informed person, is still a free one. Granted, drugs can have harmful effects on the health of the user. Nevertheless, this is insufficient justification for banning them. Protecting people from themselves is not a goal that is cognizable under UU, unless the people being protected are children or otherwise mentally immature in a way that would interfere with their ability to make rational choices. Otherwise, we should stay hands-off and permit people to chase their happiness in a way that seems best to them.

There are many other hobbies that involve a significant risk of personal harm – skydiving, mountain climbing, motorcycle riding, even playing sports – yet I’ve heard no one suggest that all these activities should be banned as well. As part of living in a free and democratic society, we must accept that other people may have different risk-reward structures than we ourselves do. I, personally, think drug use is ill-advised, and I would discourage others from trying it. (I feel the same way about football or boxing, in fact.) But I don’t think it’s my right to overrule other people’s own decisions if they make a choice that I think is wrong.

Now, if there are drugs that by their very nature make the user violent or otherwise dangerous, that’s a different story. But very few drugs could plausibly be said to do this, and one of the most commonly banned drugs, cannabis, has no such effect at all. There is no rational justification to outlaw marijuana use! If its transport and consumption is frequently associated with crime, that’s only because legal businesses can’t supply it, leaving ample room for criminals to step in. And even if it serves as a “gateway drug” – though I know of no reputable studies which demonstrate this – it’s very likely that this is only because people who try it and find it harmless are apt to conclude that government’s claims about other drugs are probably lies as well.

Society’s hypocrisy in allowing some drugs while banning others is evident when one considers that the two drugs which are legal throughout most of the civilized world – alcohol and tobacco – are almost certainly the two most dangerous and most addictive drugs in existence. Tobacco is incredibly addictive – only 6% of users who try to quit succeed for even a month – and kills more than 400,000 people each year in America alone by producing malignant cancers of the jaw, esophagus and lungs. Alcohol, meanwhile, is so toxic that a person can easily kill themselves unintentionally from a single session of binge drinking, and over 1,000 people die from alcohol poisoning each year in the U.S. alone. Drunk driving, meanwhile, added almost 18,000 more deaths in America in 2006.

If any illegal drug produced anywhere near these death totals, we could be sure of mass protests and outraged demands to know why the government wasn’t doing more to protect people. But there seems to be no meaningful constituency pressing to outlaw alcohol or tobacco. Of course, America did once outlaw alcohol; the fact that this experiment fizzled out may still serve as a reminder discouraging modern-day prohibitionists.

There’s no doubt that addiction exists, and that it is a serious problem which should be dealt with. But treating it as a criminal matter solves nothing at all. Imprisoning non-violent drug offenders floods the jails, producing a massive strain on society’s resources for no perceptible benefit. I’m ashamed to say that America imprisons more people than any other country in the world, mostly because of drug offenses. This head-in-the-sand attitude creates a disenfranchised underclass that perpetuates cycles of poverty and crime, and our draconian measures in combating drug crops abroad have led to terrible violence and shocking violations of human rights in numerous countries, including our own. Ironically, meanwhile, all this effort has had no effect whatsoever on the availability of illegal drugs.

It’s time for society to adopt a rational ethical policy and recognize that this approach simply is not working. If we legalized most drugs and allowed them to be sold by legitimate businesses, this would solve a multitude of problems at once. It would cut off the cash flow that has fueled so many violent and bloodthirsty criminal gangs. Since these businesses could be legally monitored, it would be easier to prevent the use of drugs by children, as opposed to illegal traffickers who have no incentive to refrain from targeting the young. People suffering from addiction could come forward to get the medical help they need, and legitimate businesses could be taxed to support these programs. And pardoning those non-violent offenders whose lives have been destroyed by brutal, Kafkaesque anti-drug laws would permit them to become productive members of society once again.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Ideological Event Horizon
Repost: If I Were an Unethical Atheist
Repost: The Mystical Dogma of Human Equality
Atlas Shrugged: The Great Chain of Being
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.