Paternalism and the Drug War

Paternalism and the Drug War
by Jacob G. Hornberger
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared a California law banning the sale of violent videos unconstitutional. That’s fine, but how about going further and declaring laws banning the possession and distribution of illicit drugs by adults to be unconstitutional too? After all, if we’re going to treat minors like adults, what would be wrong with treating adults like adults, too?
Don’t drug laws treat American adults like little children? “Don’t put that into your mouth or I’ll send you to your room.” In this case, the person issuing the order is some 35 year-old government bureaucrat, the person to whom he’s issuing his order is 45 years old, the substance is marijuana or cocaine or some other illegal drug, and the room is located in a federal penitentiary.
In fact, the drug war is the ultimate of the paternalistic state. The government serves as everyone’s daddy, one who sets the rules on what his adult-children are permitted to ingest and who sets the punishments for those who violate his rules.
Can drugs harm a person? Of course they can. So can lots of other things, such as fatty foods, sugar, and even such terribly damaging drugs as alcohol and tobacco.
But, simply because a substance is harmful, is a government sufficiently justified in wielding the power to punish a person for ingesting it? Is there any moral, legal, or constitutional justification for the government to serve as a daddy for American grown-ups, regulating what they choose to put into their mouths?
What about the concept of freedom? When the government wields the power to punish a person for ingesting a nonapproved substance, how in the world can anyone rationally consider that person to be free? Doesn’t freedom entail the right to make one’s own choices in life, so long as they don’t involve the initiation of force or fraud against others?
Sure, the choices that people make may be considered irresponsible, dangerous, unhealthy, or immoral by others, but isn’t the right to make such choices the essence of individual liberty? If a person is “free” to do only those things that the authorities consider are responsible, safe, healthy, and moral, then in what sense is he living in a free society? By that measure, aren’t people in China, North Korea, and Burma “free”?
Moreover, it’s his body, isn’t it? It’s his mouth that is ingesting the substance. Let’s take a simple case — a person sitting all by himself in the privacy of his own living room smoking marijuana. Obviously, he’s not violating anyone else’s rights because he’s not initiating force or fraud against anyone. Yes, some would say that what he’s doing is harming himself and his family, but people do lots of things that harm themselves and their families that are not violent or even illegal, such as drinking, smoking, overeating, or even watching too much television.
While people can say that the marijuana smoker is ruining his life or even destroying it, doesn’t freedom entail the right of the person to say, “Butt out and leave me alone”? Doesn’t freedom entail his right to live his life the way he wants, so long as his conduct remains peaceful? What business is it of policemen, prosecutors, judges, and jailers to be breaking down his door, carting him away, prosecuting and convicting him, and sending him away to do time in jail? Who elected or appointed them to be the guy’s daddy?
The fact is that what people put into their mouths is no rightful business of government. It is not a legitimate role of government to be a busybody for the citizenry. Its role is to protect people from the violence of real criminals, such as murderers, rapists, and thieves. Its job is to protect people’s right to live their lives the way they choose, including choosing to ingest harmful substances.
It is no more the business of government to control what people put into the mouths than it is to control the sale of video games to minors. Adults have a right to be adults. And that right encompasses the right to ingest whatever they want for whatever reason they want.
Jacob G. Hornberger is president of The Future of Freedom Foundation (

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