Should Drugs Be Legalized? The Right to Self-Medication

The right to self-determination includes the right to self-medicate. Prominent philosophers Thomas Szasz, James Q. Wilson, and Douglas N. Husak have argued for and against the inclusion of self-medication in the ideal of self-determination. It is first important to define what both self-determination and self-medication are. Then, I will explain why self-determination includes self-medication. Continuing, I will enumerate some of the benefits of self-medication. Last, I will evaluate arguments against my position.

Before defending my thesis, it is first necessary to adopt a definition for self-determination and self-medication, which will be used throughout the essay. Self-determination is a theoretical principle proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill declares “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Furthermore, Mill maintains that an individual can pursue self-determination so long as in his/her pursuit, no one else is harmed. Self-medication is defined as the use of drugs, sometimes illicit, to treat a real or perceived illness.

Now that I have established definitions of the two main ideals that will be discussed throughout this paper, I will now examine why self-determination includes the right to self-medicate. In The Ethics of Addiction, Thomas Szasz maintains that drug laws do not respect the right of citizens to exercise control over their own lives. It is a moral decision whether or not to take drugs, not a legal, psychiatric, or pharmacological one. Just as we regard the decisions to speak freely and practice any religion as fundamental rights, we should also consider freedom of self-medication as an essential right. If American citizens are granted this right, the physician would be eliminated as the intermediary between an individual and his/her body. The individual has too long been separated from decisions about his/her body. A reformation this extreme is highly unlikely, as it would mean the end of medicine as we know it. The Declaration of Independence enumerates our inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The concept of “pursuing happiness” should not be left up to interpretation. Whether one is playing sports, watching movies, or ingesting drugs, happiness is happiness. On a similar note, neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights address the subject of drugs. This would insinuate that the same citizens protected under the aforementioned documents should also enjoy the right to medicate his/her own body. The fact that there was an amendment to the Constitution regarding the prohibition of alcohol further reinforces this point. After prohibition was repealed, American citizens once again enjoyed the right to use alcohol. According to this precedent, all drugs are protected under the Constitution and any prohibition of them would have to come via a Constitutional Amendment. If an American citizen chooses to use a drug and is sensible and law-abiding in his/her actions while under the influence, on what basis does the government have to intervene?

In A Moral Right to Use Drugs Douglas Husak describes some of the many benefits of self-medication. Consider the costs associated with enforcing the illegality of drugs. If Americans were allowed to self-medicate, there would be less crimes committed in pursuit of illicit drugs. Also, the government would be able to regulate the purity of the drugs, which would almost eliminate overdose and other diseases that are contracted from the impurities of street drugs. The right to self-medication would be financially beneficial to American citizens also. Instead of paying large sums of money for doctor’s office and hospital visits, Americans would be able to self-medicate based on their evaluation of their own symptoms.

One argument against the ideal of self-medication in accordance with self-determination is that restricting self-medication (with regard to illegal drugs) keeps the user from harming his or herself. Similarly, restrictions guard against addiction. However, this argument is relying heavily on unrealistic assumptions. First, there are illegal drugs such as marijuana that have been proven to be less harmful than nicotine, a legalized drug. Continuing this point, there are some drugs that are dangerous, such as cocaine and heroin. But, are the harms caused by these drugs any greater than the problems caused by the use of guns or other legal weapons? The fact remains that an individual is capable of harming himself/herself in a multitude of different ways, the majority of which are perfectly legal and accessible (poison, guns, knives, tall buildings, vehicles, etc.). It is ridiculous for the government to restrict access to something just because it may be used to injure oneself. Restrictions convey a lack of trust in an individual’s judgment and can be viewed as an unnecessary precaution. The same argument has been used in the past supporting the banning of controversial books and religious practices. Such practices were eventually seen as unconstitutional because the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion and the press. Therefore, it can be argued that it also guarantees the right to freedom of self-determination when considering what an individual can put into his/her body. No one has to take any drug he/she does not want, just as no one has to read a book he/she does not want to read. Another argument against the right to self-medication is raised by James Q. Wilson in Against the Legalization on Drugs. Wilson believes that addiction is harmful and powerful, so the prohibition of drugs should continue. Szasz and Husak believe otherwise. Szasz insists that addiction is more learning than “getting hooked” on or craving something. Just as someone can become “addicted” to alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, so too can he/she become “addicted” to a morning coffee or watching TV while falling asleep at night. Both Szasz and Husak argue that any person who wants to stop using drugs can, with marginal effort.

The issue remains that this argument is one of morality. In On Liberty, philosopher John Stuart Mill provides the answer to this ethical dilemma. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The right to self-determination includes the right to self-medicate. Evidence supporting this statement can be found in many philosophical writings including those of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Szasz, and Douglas Husak. After establishing definitions of self-determination and self-medication, I explained why the concept self-determination includes self-medication. Then, I discussed some of the benefits of self-medication, relying heavily on the beliefs of Husak. Last, I critically evaluated opposition to my position. In conclusion, an individual’s right to self-determination (and, in turn, self-medication) should trump any proposed restrictions to the use of drugs. The government should adopt the motto that was described by Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you [take], but I will defend to the death your right to [take] it!”.

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