Why illegal drugs should be legalized

by on 28 May, 2010

The war on drugs is an enemy of civil liberties, writes Sukrit Sabhlok.

John Stuart Mill’s classic work, On Liberty, examines “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and concludes: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
In a democracy, however, the tyranny of the majority often tramples individual freedoms. If 51% of the people agree on a proposed measure that is oppressive towards some minority, in the absence of any constitutional limitation, that measure will become the law of the land.

And so it is with the ‘War on Drugs’. If we leave aside the legal drugs, only a minority of people are attracted to mind-altering substances. Of those aged 14 and over, 39.1% have tried marijuana, 8.8% have tried amphetamines, 4.3% have tried cocaine and 2.2% have tried heroin. These figures, from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, help explain why prohibition persists: there are few votes in advocating rights for “unfashionable” minorities. Although 46.4% of Australians have tried an illicit drug at some point in their life, there seems to be an element of cognitive dissonance among drug users, with many supporting a policy of prohibition. 
The War on Drugs should be opposed on two grounds. 
First, the statutes enforcing prohibition violate several principles that guide our criminal law; for instance, that there must be a victim, and that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. 
Second, to the best of my knowledge, prohibition has not succeeded in any nation which it has been tried. In Australia, in spite of a total sum of $13 billion being spent between 1976 and 2000, studies continue to show that drugs are easily available, increasing in purity and the number of overdose deaths has increased, not decreased.
If the drug warriors think that jail time is enough to “win” the War on Drugs, they need to think twice. Capital punishment for mere possession is probably the only way to significantly reduce drug usage. But even Singapore, which uses capital punishment to deter drug offences, has failed to end either the supply or demand of drugs. In any case, is a society where people are put to death for using drugs the kind of society we want to live in?
The misnamed ‘War on Drugs’ is in reality a war on our families. It is nonsensical to speak of waging a war against marijuana or heroin when it is the users of these drugs that are marginalised by political leaders and humiliated by police violating their civil liberties.
For those who value the rule of law and limited government, the War on Drugs is an enemy of civil liberties. Police and courts are empowered to reverse the burden of proof, so the accused are no longer innocent until proven guilty. In addition, drug prohibition diverts scarce economic resources away from taxpayers. It is time we tried something different.
Sukrit is an Arts/Law student at the University of Melbourne and a director of Liberty Australia.

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