Vice Squad
Monday, March 08, 2004
Clarence Darrow Responds to Guest Blogger!

Guest blogger Michael Alexeev has done his host the honor of quibbling! Mike is
that I too blithely assumed that drug possession is unworthy of jail,
and yes, I agree, I was too blithe about it in my post. For one, I did not
specify that I was talking "personal use quantities", and the immediate "no
punishment" argument only applies to possession for private use, not sale,
so I should have made that clear. But Mike goes further, and suggests that
maybe drug possession is like drunk driving, not immediately and necessarily
harmful to others in itself but posing enough of a risk of harm that we rightly
can proscribe drug possession and punish drug possessors, as we punish drunk
drivers. This criticism is a species of a traditional attack on John Stuart Mill's
harm principle
, that we cannot easily draw the line between self-regarding
acts and acts that harm (or pose a non-negligible risk of harming) others.

In general, it is indeed hard to draw the self-regarding/non-self-regarding
line. But for me (and for Mill), it isn't a close call with drug possession (hence
my leaving it out of the post). The criminalization of drug possession is an
unjust restraint upon liberty.

The full argument requires an examination of the external costs of
drug use, and the certainty with which these externalities arise from drug
use. I won't go through all the possibilities here, but I will state the general
conclusion: the external costs that plausibly arise from drug use are way too
uncertain to justify criminalization. Millions of Americans have used illicit
drugs, and the vast majority of them have not caused any problem for anybody.

But my assertion alone is of course unsatisfactory, so let me at least point
the way to a more organized approach. In what ways do drugs cause harm to others?

Mark Kleiman, in his book Against Excess, offers one potential accounting of
"harms to others" associated with drug use: dereliction of duty; crime; nuisance;
health damage; drain on common resources; risk-spreading and cross subsidy
effects; leading others to use drugs (in epidemiological fashion); and "notional"
damage. (Notional damage is the possibility that some people are made
unhappy or disgusted simply by knowledge of others' drug use.)

Consider Kleiman's first three external costs, dereliction of duty, crime, and
public nuisance. Dereliction of duty (such as failure to provide for children)
can rightly be punished, whatever the cause. But the potential for drug taking
to lead to this outcome is not sufficiently direct and certain to justify
making drugs illegal. Likewise, the crime that is engendered by some types of
drug consumption -- violence by drunks, for instance -- is not sufficiently
direct and certain to stand as a basis for outlawing drugs. The external harm
that arises from creating a public nuisance, like the harms from dereliction
of duty or drug-induced crime, could provide a reason to punish those who
create public nuisances. Again, however, the public nuisance associated with
most types of drug use is insufficiently direct and certain to justify drug

If a person had once been violent under the influence of alcohol or drugs,
however, then a prohibition specific to that person would be OK by Mill
and by me.

Some drug use might have a direct influence on the health of others, and such
use could justly be controlled on that basis. Second-hand smoke is the premier
example here, though the extent to which it causes health risks to others is
quite controversial.

Kleiman's remaining types of external costs (drains on common resources,
risk-spreading and cross subsidy effects, leading others to use drugs, or
"notional" damage) do not appear to me to "rise to the Millian level" to
justify prohibition. Such costs, to quote Mill, generally do not constitute
"perceptible hurt to any assignable individual...."

Let me give the last word (for now--Mike?) to new Vice Squad hero Clarence
Darrow: "Criminal statutes are very different from civil legislation. Punishment
is inflicted on the theory that a right-thinking person could not commit the
act without a feeling of guilt. No such feeling has ever been experienced
with the taking of a drink of intoxicating liquor." (...or from the taking
of a hit of an intoxicating drug...OK, couldn't leave the very last word to

Labels: , ,

Powered by Blogger