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Our Right to Drugs

You might be tempted to label Thomas Szasz, author of Our Right to Drugs, The Case for a Free Market, a counter-culture hippie. However, this analysis couldnt be further from the truth. Szasz, a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, is a major supporter of civil liberties. He sees the so-called “War on Drugs” as one of the worst atrocities that the American Government has perpetrated on its people. Szasz contends that the prohibition of certain drugs, including common prescription drugs, is nothing more than the government telling the people that “father knows best”. It is this paternalistic attitude that Szasz finds so oppressive.

Mr. Szasz makes three key arguments throughout his book. First, the “War on Drugs” is a failure and can never succeed. It should be stopped immediately. Second, drug legalization is not a viable answer. It would only turn into another attempt by the government to control drugs and would not be any more of a free market than the current system of drug prohibition. Third, he proposes a solution. The solution is to end all drug regulation by the government; in effect, creating a free market for drugs. He doesnt stop at illicit drugs, however. He also includes prescription drugs in this solution as well. He sees the governments drug control policy as an attempt by the government to control its population, much like a parent controls his/her children.

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In order to get at what Mr. Szasz is saying, we must first examine his definition of what a free market is. Szasz defines the free market as “the right of every competent adult to trade in goods and services.” (Szasz, page 2). In other words, he is outlining a laissez-faire system of the free market. Szasz contends that the governments only role in a free market is to “protect people from force and fraud and, to the maximum extent possible, abstain from participating in the production and distribution of goods and services.” (Szasz, page 2). In this system of laissez-faire, the government has a very small role. According to Szasz, the government should have a passive role in any market, including the market for drugs. Once the government gives up its active role, which is represented by the “war on drugs”, a free market for drugs which Szasz proposes can be attained.
As we delve into Mr. Szaszs first argument, we begin to see major problems with the governments “War on Drugs”. According to Szasz, the prohibition of drugs is a blatant violation of human rights guaranteed to American citizens by the Constitution. In order to prove his point, he equates drugs to personal property. According to the Constitution, every American citizen shall have “the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property, the first two elements resting squarely on the last.” (Szasz, 1). Thus, Szasz contends that “because both our bodies and drugs are types of propertyproducing, trading in, and using drugs are property rights, and drug prohibitions constitute a deprivation of basic constitutional rights.” (Szasz, 2). In other words, just like the prohibition of alcohol required a constitutional amendment, so does the prohibition of drugs. Without that amendment, the prohibition of drugs is in direct violation of the Constitution.

The second argument that Szasz makes is one, surprisingly enough, against the legalization of drugs. Even though Szasz argues for a free market for drugs, this is much different from the argument that self-proclaimed “drug legalizers” make. According to Szasz, most proponents of drug legalization argue for what he calls “Legalization as Taxation” (Szasz, page 106). Ethan Nadelmann, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, claims the following,
Lets say we decide, okay, were not going to legalize crack; what we will do is legalize 15-percent cocaine. . . . Yes, some people are still going to want to go to the black market. . . and buy crack. You wont be able to prevent that. But lets say 70 percent of the market will be using the legal, less potent substance. Thats good, because the government taxes it, regulates it. . . . The object is to undercut the criminal element” (Szasz, page 106).

From this, we can only conclude that proponents of so called “drug legalization” are only pushing the legalization in order to eliminate or significantly reduce the criminal element. However, Szasz continues to add that “Undercutting the criminal element is a far cry from seriously engaging the problem of drug controls,” (Szasz, page 107). In other words, even though legalization is possibly a step in the right direction, it still wouldnt bring this country out of the woods.
In comparison, Szasz analyzes how legalizing drugs would be much like the system of prescription medication. The comparison between the prescription drug to the illicit drug is one of Szaszs most compelling arguments. According to Szasz, we will never be able to “control” all the substances out there. Szasz outlines how this mentality is much like an overprotective parent. The government doesnt trust its own people with their own bodies and the decisions that affect their bodies. Szasz states, in no uncertain terms, that people should be able to do whatever they want to their own bodies.

This leads directly into Szaszs third argument. Szasz argues that the solution to the countrys drug problems is to lift all prohibitions on all drugs, illicit and prescription. Then and only then would our government be obeying the Constitution as it is written. This laissez-faire system places the responsibility on the American people to police themselves when it comes to drugs. However, Szasz says that he “recognizes a need for limiting the free market in drugs, just as he recognizes a need for limiting the free market in many other goods. The legitimate place for that limit, however, is where free access to a particular product presents a clear and present danger to the safety and security of others.” (Szasz, page 7). Thus, Szasz recognizes that if people pose a threat to the Constitutional rights of others, the government is obligated to step in and regulate, much as it does with dynamite or guns. This should be the governments only role, however. It has no legal right to do anything else.

Szasz has really done something amazing with this book. Being a child of the 1980s, I have had anti-drug propaganda shoved down my throat at every corner. Whether it was “just say no” or images of how “stupid” marijuana made you, it was a staple of a young boys life. It even got to me. The government convinced me that drugs were evil, something that only hardened criminals did. Even worse, drugs could transform a little boy into a hardened criminal. What Szasz has been able to do with his arguments, however, is open my eyes to the other side of the debate. Now, given the knowledge his book has given me, I am able to make more informed decisions when it comes to the laws of our country. I only hope that one day I am in a position to educate more people of the atrocities our government is guilty of.


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