n John Stuart Mills’ “RevisedHarm Principle”The question of whether or not to legalize certain drugs has beendebated for decades. Although opponents have thus far been successful inpreventing this, there are nonetheless a substantial number of people whobelieve that legalization should be given a chance. Their arguments range fromthe seeming ineffectiveness of current drug laws to the simple premise that thegovernment has no right to prohibit its citizens from using drugs if theychoose to do so. This essay will address the issue from the standpoint of JohnStuart Mills’ “Revised Harm Principle,” which asserts that people should befree to do what they want unless they threaten the vital interests (i. e.Order now
,security or autonomy) of others. Using Mills’ principle as a litmus test for this issue leads one to comedown on the side of legalization. Since Mills is concerned not with individualrights, but with the consequences of one’s actions on other people, the questionbecomes: 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 ofsociety, it is clear that more harm is done to others if the user must resort toillegal methods to obtain his drugs. The very act of buying drugs isintrinsically illegal and carries the threat of establishing a criminal recordfor 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 jailcells (prompting politicians to demand more jails be built), higher taxes tosupport these jails, and the loss, or at least diminution, of a productivecitizen. In order to buy drugs illegally, the user may be forced to exposehimself to the fringes of the criminal world–something he would never do underany other circumstances. If drugs were legalized, the criminal stigma would beremoved from their purchase, possession, and use. The government would collecttaxes on drug sales and, conversely, would not be spending millions of dollarsto stem the flow of illegal drugs.
This increase in tax dollars could be put touse in drug education and treatment programs for those individuals who areunable to moderate their intake and subsequently become addicts. Then thegovernment 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 spousaland child abuse, random criminal acts precipitated by the effects of drugs on auser’s inhibitions, and crimes committed to support drug habits. This argumentis fundamentally defective because it addresses the abuse of drugs, which is notthe issue here.
When an individual’s use of drugs leads him to harm others, itbecomes a behavioral problem. That is, the issue is no longer drugs, but thebehavior of the individual. If that behavior breaks a law, the individualshould be punished for that specific conduct–not for drug use. In its pureform, drug use affects only the user, and the government is therefore actingpaternally when it regulates this behavior.
This government regulation violatesMills’ “Revised Harm Principle” as blatantly as would regulations againstsunbathing or overeating or masturbation. A RebuttalWhen using John Stuart Mills’ “Revised Harm Principle” to argue for thelegalization of drugs, it is necessary to examine that principle (that peopleshould 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 oflegalization argue that drug use is a self-regarding act and has no effect onanyone other than the user. But drug use affects every aspect of society: itaffects the security of nonusers, and it affects the autonomy of the user.
If drugs were made legal and easily obtainable in this country, thegovernment would be relinquishing its role as protector of those citizens whoare unable to control their excesses. These people surrender their autonomy todrug addiction, thus “selling” themselves into a type of slavery. It is truethat the decriminalization of drugs would remove much of the stigma associatedwith them, but this would not be a positive change. It is that stigma thatkeeps many law-abiding citizens from using illegal drugs, and thus keeps thenumber of addicts at a minimum. Also, if drugs were legalized, the governmentwould not be legally able to force addicts into treatment programs, and thenumber of addicts would grow exponentially.
This scenario leads to the problem of security, both economic andpersonal, for the vast number of Americans who probably would not becomeaddicted to drugs if they were legalized. Drug use would become as prolific asalcohol consumption, and the number of societal and health-related problemswould be as numerous as those associated with alcohol. More working days wouldbe lost by people unable to control their drug habits, and insurance costs wouldsoar in order to cover expensive treatment required to rehabilitate addicts andto deal with the health problems caused by addiction. These consequences wouldhave a direct effect on people other than the drug users, thus negating theconcept that drug use is a self-regarding act.
Regarding personal security, legalization advocates try to draw a linebetween drug use and drug abuse. As it is impossible to predict who would usedrugs “responsibly” and who would succumb to addiction, the government has aright and a duty to do everything in its powers to limit the availability ofharmful substances, even though the majority of its citizens might never makethe transition from use to abuse. Proponents of legalization maintain that legalizing drugs would removegovernment control from a private area of our lives. This is a faultyassumption because the government’s role would only shift, not disappear. Therewould be taxes, quality control, and distribution issues to deal with, and thegovernment 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 dueto the availability of legal drugs and lack of recourse with which to addressthem.Category: Philosophy