On Legalizing It

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This recent story from The Economist states the familiar case for fighting the rampant abuse of drugs by legalizing them. From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, I could not hope to argue that continuing the “war on drugs” is the most productive route. However, I have always fretted about what it would mean for our society to condone and promote drug use. Our laws have always been based around promoting “good policy” and keeping clear of “bad policy.” We don’t enforce contracts against minors because, well, adults shouldn’t be contracting with minors (with certain exceptions). We don’t enforce non-compete clauses that are so broad as to threaten one’s livelihood. There are other examples of agreements freely entered into that are not enforceable on grounds of public policy.

The idea is, obviously, that our courts are meant to enforce agreements that in turn promote the public welfare. If we were to turn around our drug policy simply out of defeat, and not because we had changed our moral position on the question, seems this would be an unprecedented and backhanded use (abuse?) of our legal system to alter behavior. Clearly, the idea would be that we would legalize drugs because we hope that we could reduce their use better than by continuing to outlaw them. Somehow, that just seems very strange and wrong. Sounds like a lawyer trick to me. It would lead to either a very sneaky and Machiavellian regulatory and enforcement structure, or a triumph of moral relativism. In either case, I doubt it’s worth it.

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