The Cost Of The War On Drugs Philosophy Essay

The War on Drugs was declared on June 17, 1971 by President Nixon, claiming at a press conference that drugs and their abuse are, “public enemy number one in the United States” (Frontline). Since that time, the War on Drugs has gone on to become the longest and most costly war in American history (Duke 15). The ever increasing expenditures, perceived infringement of constitutional rights, misinformation campaigns, imprisonments, and the seeming futility of the whole endeavor are leading many to question whether the War on Drugs is justifiable.

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This war is being waged against a concept and not an enemy, which guarantees unlimited funding and an unlimited time period with which to fight it. Not only is it unethical for the government to specify what chemicals citizens can and cannot place into their own bodies, the massive resources funneled into this futile operation would greatly benefit other areas of human society. 87 million people over the age of twelve have used illegal drugs, making this war on a concept virtually a war against the citizens of the United States (Cole, par. 14). The majority of resources devoted to the war on drugs are for law enforcement purposes, ignoring the underlying problems of addiction within the consumer culture in which we live. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be a sorry state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny” (Shulgin 28).

Jack Cole is a retired New Jersey state police lieutenant who spent nearly fourteen years working as a narcotics officer. Over the course of his career, Jack evolved from a true believer in the War on Drugs into the co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP. LEAP, as the name states, is an organization consisting of former police officers, judges, district attorneys, retired DEA, etc., who lobby for drug legalization (Cole, par. 1).

Jack believes the War on Drugs is unjustly destroying millions of American’s lives every year and that the war itself is primarily responsible for many of the drug and drug related societal problems (par. 2). For example, by declaring certain drugs illegal one creates a black market and artificially inflates the price of these inherently non valuable products. Where there is demand there will be supply, especially for a ridiculous profit margin such as 17,000%, as Jack states (par. 7). These profits fund illegal organizations, such as Al Qaeda and organized crime, as well as contribute to local violence as seen in gang disputes over drug peddling territory (par. 7,20).

Mr. Cole cites several compelling statistics. Tobacco kills 430,000 Americans per year, Alcohol 110,000, and all illegal drugs combined kill less than 12,000 people per year (par. 9). The US government spends 69 billion dollars per year in the War on Drugs and arrests 1.6 million on non-violent drug offenses (par. 9). Mr. Cole raises the valid question as to whether these monetary and human expenses are justified in combating illegal drugs while approximately 540,000 deaths are attributed yearly to legal alcohol and tobacco consumption (par. 9).

A key question in considering the war on drugs is that of how much freedom an individual should have. John Stuart Mill addressed this question in his seminal work On Liberty. Mill was of the persuasion that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number isaˆ¦ to prevent harm to others. His own good, whether physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (LaFollette 290). By this definition, the notion of victimless crime is moot. With no victim, there is no crime. This is a major point of contention among many because humans do not live their lives in a vacuum, virtually every action affects someone else in some way.

Another important aspect to consider is the notion of harm. Who exactly is being harmed by drug use? If it is the drug user that is harmed, according to Mill’s views we have no right to prevent a rational human being from performing this action, even if the action itself is irrational. If there is sufficient evidence that drug use directly harms others, that is a justifiable reason to prohibit society’s actions. Many in favor of prohibition cite many ways in which drug use harms others, such as drug use increases crime, child abuse, spousal neglect, accidents, and non-productiveness. The problem though, is that drug use does not directly cause these harms, rather it increases the risk of these harms. Rape and murder are always wrong because they always harm someone else by definition. Drug use is more slippery, not every user harms others and no user always harms others. We must decide if the likelihood of a few users to sometimes harm others is justifiable reason to ban all drug use. This is much like the decision we have already made concerning the risk of gun ownership.

James Q. Wilson is an academic political scientist and President Nixon’s appointed chairman for the National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention (NACDAP), the forerunner to the modern DEA. Wilson is a firm supporter of the drug war, arguing that the expenses that would be incurred from legalization far outweigh any expense of the current drug war (297). He claims that the notion of drug use being a victimless crime is absurd, that society “is not, nor ever has been, composed of autonomous beings” (297). In his view, drug use is wrong because it demoralizes people, is contrary to human goodness, and degrades society as a whole (297). Wilson is combining a form of cost-benefit analysis utilitarianism with his evaluation of the virtues of drug use.

A counter to this point of view is seen in the writings of Thomas Szasz, a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York. Szasz thinks that when the Declaration of Independence states all men, meaning rational adults, are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” this includes the liberty to self medicate with drugs (White 279). His view is reminiscent of Mill’s statement that “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (LaFollette 290). The factors of addiction and danger are thought to have no bearing on the argument, that self harm is not a justifiable liberty limiting principle (White 279). Freedom is and always will be more valuable than safety. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who can give up essential liberty to attain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (

Speaking of liberty limiting principles, Szasz is speaking from a standpoint of the harm principle, or the idea that law may only rightly restrict an individual’s actions if they directly harm another (Mackinnon 233). As mentioned previously, this originated with J.S. Mill. There are other liberty limiting principles to consider though, such as the social harm principle which claims that the law may prevent an individual’s actions if they do harm to society itself (234). In a free market society, anything that erodes competition may be justly outlawed. This may partly provide reason for declaring marijuana illegal due to the fact that the top ten drug companies account for more than 50% of Fortune 500 profits and according to Dr. Claudia Jensen, a breast cancer specialist, 80% of prescription drugs could be replaced by cannabis (American Drug War). This would seriously erode the market because cannabis can be grown virtually anywhere as is seen today with its cultivation in areas ranging from backyards to bedroom closets.

Another way in which drugs may violate the social harm principle is in their alleged degradation of the family. William J. Bennett, a former drug czar under the Bush Sr. administration, states that not only do drugs harm the users, but also “hurt parents, they destroy families, they ruin friendships” (Bender 52). If family structure is deemed to be an integral part of societal well being, this argument could stand up under the societal harm principle. There is a risk of committing the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy if sufficient evidence of drug use directly harming the family unit is not produced.

Viewing the subject of drugs through a deontological lens produces different ideas altogether on the subject. Firstly, the use of drugs for recreational purposes may very well be breaking Kant’s imperative not to use oneself as a means to an end. Second, the highest purpose of a human is to be a rational being and anything that impairs this ability must be inherently bad. Intoxication muddies one’s ability to consider situations rationally, hampering one’s ability to make a proper moral choice. One could also argue that drug use leading to addiction robs an individual of their autonomy, overriding their free will with a drive for consumption at all costs. Also, in relation to Kant’s maxim of universalizability, one could without contradiction will it to be a universal law that nobody injects heroin. I think this principle becomes a bit less clear when considering substances such as marijuana though.

Virtue ethics are most famously associated with Aristotle and provide a refreshing perspective in relation to drug usage and its legislature. By not focusing on the act itself or the assumed consequences of the action, virtue ethics focuses on the character of the agent. Aristotle also does not distinguish between morality and politics because the two are intertwined (Christie 56). Politics are meant to populate society with citizens of good character (56). By employing the golden mean as mentioned in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, we can hope to arrive at a balance between two extremes. Additionally, Aristotle also takes into account contextual factors such as our willingness to do the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, and with the right motives.

The two poles of our current situation in regard to drug usage are absolute prohibition and complete legalization. The associated virtues of these positions could be conservancy and liberalism. I think a strategy of legalization and control would best fit the situation as a golden mean. Can condoning drug use be a virtue though? It is virtuous to promote virtue and vicious to promote vice. Through prohibition we are greatly contributing to empires built on vice and adding to the already ample surplus of human suffering in the world. Maybe it is not condoning drug use, but having compassion for the suffering of others and seeking to minimize that suffering.

In conclusion, after conducting my research I am still of the opinion that the War on Drugs is ethically wrong. I have learned many disturbing things involved with the prohibition of chemical substances. Prisons are being privatized, which is good for expense optimization but creates a profit motive to incarcerate people (American Drug War). Their stock is sold on wall street based on how many people are in jail (American Drug War). Almost half a million people are in prison or jail due to drug offenses ( The private companies can also use inmates as private property to do work or produce goods the company profits from, which sounds a bit like slavery to me (American Drug War). The number of marijuana arrests is greater than the number of arrests for all violent crimes combined, meaning that if it were to be legalized, many powerful organizations would lose a great deal of money ( Many drugs were banned originally due to reasons of racism, empire building, and fear (Hooked). The CIA is alleged to have started the L.A. crack epidemic of the 1980’s to finance Nicaraguan Contra efforts, with fairly compelling evidence (Webb). Money seems to control everything. The Partnership for a Drug Free America’s biggest funders were alcohol and tobacco companies until they were exposed, now they only accept from prescription drug manufacturers (Males par. 9). Marijuana is in the same DEA schedule as heroin, PCP, and methamphetamine, which is asinine ( Cocaine is not physically addictive nor is MDMA (Eldredge 13). No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose (23). Alcohol withdrawal is on par with heroin, and both are awful (15).

Drugs do not consume people, people consume drugs and sometimes allow them to take over. A peyote cactus, which has existed on this earth far longer than humans, is not an inherently bad thing yet it is a schedule I offense to grow one in your front yard. I do not think that drugs should be sold from vending machines on the street corner, but under prohibition they virtually are, except not from vending machines. By declaring these substances illegal we are ceding any amount of control we might be able to exert over a wide range of powerful and potentially dangerous chemicals. People will consume whether society says they can or not, in ever more innovative and industrious ways. The current era of synthetic drugs capable of being manufactured in a bathroom is due in part to prohibition of less harmful substances. It is cheaper and easier to make your own supply with stuff you bought from Walgreens and Home Depot. Seeking altered states of consciousness seems ingrained in the human psyche. Our current efforts with this war against drugs have only served to amplify the negative effects drugs have on society.

Legalization and control, much like we do with alcohol and tobacco, seems to me to be the golden mean of this situation. I do not think people should use heroin, but I also do not think I have a right to force them not to in the privacy of their own home nor that we are helping anyone by making it illegal. We should stop this madness now, there is an almost infinite variety of substances that exist now or are mere potentialities that will inebriate a human being. We are seeing this across America today with the rise in popularity of incense that has been sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid agonist and sold for $20 a gram. We are like Don Quixote battling an enemy that does not exist while the real enemy is inside ourselves. If we devoted as many resources as we funnel into the drug war toward education, research, and endeavors to better understand ourselves and the world that surrounds us, society would without a doubt have a better tomorrow.